OpEd: When Xenophobia Speaks Louder Than Sound Policy: Trump’s Lack of Strategy in Africa

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Written by Hayley Elszasz

In the weeks leading up to Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States, predictions ranging from ominous to cautiously optimistic abounded regarding his potential policies toward Africa. In the short time since his inauguration, clarity remains elusive, as President Trump’s team has not yet formulated any clear policies regarding the African continent. There is, however, one significant exception: his executive order to restrict the flow of refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Sudan, Somalia, and Libya. The effects of this order will have severe consequences for US relations with Africa, particularly in the realms of development, trade, and security.

Immediately following Trump’s election victory, Witney Schneidman of the Brookings Institution’s African Growth Initiative noted that a concern in Africa was the potential end of beneficial foreign aid provisionsSchneidman described the real possibility of the Trump administration moving to cut budgets for programs like the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) – all hallmark Africa policies of Trump’s predecessors. Soft power approaches like YALI are likely targets for cuts by Trump who, via his transition team’s questions submitted to the State Department, has displayed a penchant for a “transactional-oriented foreign policy agenda.”  Trump would likely see YALI – a program that aims to train and support future African leaders – as a “bad deal” lacking tangential and immediate benefit for the United States.

While the future of these development projects is yet to be seen, the first weeks of the Trump Presidency have generated a vision of the United States that is less democratic, free, and tolerant, calling into question US standing as a development partner. Trump’s new vision has not been lost on African leaders, who acknowledge the hypocrisy of US immigration policies. For example, former Chairperson of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, called Trump’s immigration restrictions “one of the greatest challenges” for Africa and noted the incongruity of the United States taking Africans “as slaves during the transatlantic slave trade,” while now denying them access as refugees. There is a limit to how little the United States implements its own ideology before foreign governments register its lack of democratic credibility. Trump’s erratic, unilateral, and nepotistic decision-making process flies in the face of the ideals of rule of law that undergird most US development programs. While development programs in Africa have not yet been cut by the Trump administration, the ideological underpinning of these programs has certainly been damaged.

Trump’s executive order limiting immigration from Sudan, Somalia, and Libya is also likely to reduce America’s clout as a trade partner in Africa, potentially contributing to declining US influence in the region and a rise of Chinese influence. While the United States retreats from the rest of the world via Trump’s “America First” policy, China has reaffirmed its association with Africa. Thus, America could be ceding influence to a rising China at a time when African business growth is beginning to show its true potential.  Along with having extensive resources, the African continent is urbanizing at an incredible rate and experiencing a significant youth bulge. Additionally, Africa is slated to have a workforce larger than both China and India by 2034. The corporate environment in Africa is large and diverse, and the United States will miss out on investment opportunities if it continues to cut ties with the continent and further damage US-Africa relations.

More concerning than the potential decline in development and trade, however, is the ways in which Trump’s statements and actions could increase conflict and violent extremism in Africa. His executive order is exactly the type of fear-based reaction that terrorism is meant to evoke. Not only does it isolate Muslim communities in the United States and abroad, but it also weakens partnerships with key allies in the targeted countries, namely students, businesspeople, and ordinary citizens who are instrumental in the fight against terrorism. Rashid Abdi, the Horn of Africa Director at the International Crisis Group, predicts that the executive order will boost the al-Qaeda-aligned militia al-Shabaab’s recruitment efforts in East Africa. Overall, Trump’s actions call into question the democratic integrity of the United States and sully its efforts as a voice for rule of law and tolerance globally. His poorly-reasoned actions will likely strengthen terrorist organizations, who will be emboldened by the effectiveness of their fear mongering.

There is a deficiency of substantive foreign policy under Trump and an influx of hasty, reactionary orders that undermine America’s credibility in Africa, a region of increasing strategic importance. Trump’s policy barring refugees from Sudan, Somalia, and Libya is already negatively impacting America’s relations with the African continent, endangering development, trade, and security. Potential outcomes include less US influence and engagement, decreased standing as a partner in aid and trade, and higher frequency of violent extremism. There is an urgent need for reasoned evaluation of US policy in Africa and abolishment of Trump’s damaging executive order.

About the author: Hayley Elszasz is a Program Associate at World Learning. She earned her BA in Political Science and Global Studies from Williams College in 2016. Hayley is an Africa Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the organizations with which the author is affiliated.

Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann