resident Donald Trump’s diplomatic gaffes and poorly devised policy prescriptions have weakened U.S. foreign policy across the board. Nowhere has this lack of tact and planning been felt more than in Africa; which, when it is not being ignored, has been the butt of snide remarks. The lack of effective policy could serve as opportunities for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to assert better alternatives; however, to do so, candidates must distinguish themselves beyond simply not being Trump, and commit to ideas that are both progressive and likely to succeed where Trump fails.
On immigration, Trump’s xenophobic policy, via the Muslim Ban, and vulgar rhetoric applied to African countries during a discussion on immigration damaged U.S. soft power. The United States stands to lose an edge to the rest of the world if they end their symbolic and historic rein as the land of immigrants. The Democrats can design an Africa Strategy that reaffirms U.S. historic openness toward immigration with Africa, emphasizes the positive role the U.S. can play in the developing world, and reiterates that the United States holds an immigration regime based on equality, not the development status of the origin country.
On the question of the U.S. role in the world, Trump has focused the United States away from global commitments or a liberal rule based international system, and toward a more economic nationalist approach that foregoes mutual assistance from both longstanding allies and the developing world. Yet, Cold War battle lines drawn with other powers and China, do not best serve U.S. interests. The Trump administration’s “Africa Strategy”, unveiled by former National Security Advisor John Bolton in December 2018, announced a swerve in U.S. goals toward a zero-sum Cold War-styled economic and security competition scheme against Russia and China, that focuses on the military rather than aid or diplomacy. Following this playbook, Trump boosts support for Egypt and makes little changes to an unsustainable defense posture while simultaneously planning major cuts to foreign aid to Africa, which could reduce billions spent on USAID programs and would likely heavily reduce assistance to many of the 47 African recipient countries.
The Democrats should rectify that the 21st century role of the United States in the developing world to that of development and not purely national security interests intent on monopolizing local security forces toward a forever war on terror. The well-documented wide-ranging U.S. military efforts in Africa belay a self-defeating strategy toward terrorism, which, if left uncoupled from development and diplomacy, will further push peripheral rebel territories into the long war phase of insurgency.
On soft power, both immigration and the U.S. global role, Trump’s foreign policy can be seen as a great contradiction. Removing the U.S. from the game board cedes the interests of a state, and is the worst way to influence our allies and enemies alike. Ironically, China is still recovering from its own inward turn for several centuries. “America-first” policy, built on non-interventionist and isolationist traits, intends to reshape US foreign policy by doing less. Despite this shift in policy, the United States remains more popular among Africans than other world powers in large part due to its soft power, which is fueled by the historically broad efforts by the United States to engage with the continent. These efforts, primarily via diplomacy and aid outreach, deserve support not decimation, as they will contribute to Africans’ future decisions about whom they trade with, why, and under what conditions.
So far, the Democrats have been slow moving to offer such alternative frameworks, given their omission of Africa from their already thinly spread foreign policy talking points. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), polled 14 Democratic 2020 candidates on issues deemed critical to foreign policy, and included one question on Africa, asking how the candidates planned to address that the continent is set to make up 25 percent of the world population by 2050. Most candidates spoke about economic cooperation and Africa’s key role in “global security”, but their positive aspirations lacked designs for a true reversal from Trump’s platform as they checked off the familiar U.S.-Africa boxes: aid, trade, and terror. While the democratic race has lost many of the candidates who responded to the poll since July, the status quo perspective on Africa—principally a lack of in-depth perspective—prevails among the remaining candidates."
Nonetheless, CFR poll contained flashes of alternatives for U.S. policy on Africa, such as Andrew Yang’s tech-econ approach, a bullet point from Biden on African women, Bernie Sanders’ suggestion at alternative models to the World Bank and World Trade Organization, and even Seth Moulton’s (since dropped out) connection of poverty to extremism. Any analysis would be remiss if it did not credit the Democrats for these hints of wider ideas. However, a more robust message is needed to address Africa—outside of the CRF poll, there is no message on Africa from the Democrats.
After three years of bungled or damaging Trump polices toward the continent, a clear opening presents itself for Democrat-led solutions and they are needed soon. After the U.S. Presidential Election in November 2020, whoever is in the White House will need to engage with Africa on critical issues that will continue to have global ramifications well-beyond the continent and well-beyond the current decade.