A Trump visit to Africa is important—and carries some urgency

White House Advisor Ivanka Trump walks with the President of the women association Bamba Awa, as she meets women entrepreneurs, at the demonstration cocoa farm in Adzope, Ivory Coast April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Luc Gnago - RC1F706B5990
Editor's note:

This op-ed was originally published by The Hill.

Ivanka Trump landed in Ethiopia on Sunday to promote the Trump administration’s $50 million Women’s Global Development and Prosperity initiative, funded through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The goal of the initiative is to empower 50 million women through employment and economic stability by 2025. She has met with women working in textiles and coffee, and headed to Côte d’Ivoire to meet with women working in the cocoa and coffee industries. But although this trip and first lady Melania Trump’s visit to Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, and Egypt last year are positive signs for U.S.-Africa relations, President Trump himself has yet to visit the continent.

Given its rapid growth and great potential, the African continent is set to be the site of an impending economic and political struggle between the United States and the rival powers of China and Russia. The four fundamental drivers of U.S. foreign policy are security, power, economic prosperity, and influence (in areas such as human rights, democracy, and American values). The recently released U.S. Africa Strategy focuses in particular on countering China’s commercial, security and political influence in Africa, although specific programs and action plans have yet to be revealed, including the initiative “Prosper Africa.” A winning American strategy in Africa should focus on advancing mutual interests.

Despite the new U.S. Africa Strategy, and the clear assertion of American foreign policy goals throughout the rest of the world, Trump’s administration continues to overlook obvious opportunities on the African continent and underestimates the importance of unlocking Africa’s potential for mutually beneficial relations.

Africa garnered less than 1 percent of total U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI)and 1.2 percent of all U.S. exports in 2017, indicating that it is one of the lowest priorities for U.S. trade and investment. Between 2014 and 2017, U.S. goods exports to Africa fell by almost half, from $25 billion to $14 billion. The current administration also recently cut important health programs related to Africa, including annulling $252 million in funding for Ebola containment and prevention and removing the global health security and biodefense directorate from the National Security Council.

Sub-Saharan African countries are facing economic downturns as a result of the U.S.-China trade war, which risks indirectly undercutting U.S. goals of promoting African self-reliance, increasing U.S.-Africa trade and investment, and countering Chinese influence.

Leaders of other countries, including China, Russia, and emerging countries such as Brazil, South Korea, and Turkey, are traveling to the African continent and establishing mutually beneficial partnerships centered on investment, trade, security collaboration, and diplomatic engagement. The United States is quickly losing ground to China in particular, which increased its exports to Africa more than fivefold, to $90 billion, from 2005 to 2017, and whose exports to Africa reached a high of $150 billion in 2015.

Chinese lending in Africa has increased significantly in the past decade, totaling $116 billion from 2010 to 2017, with a pledge for an additional $60 billion in lending to be disbursed between 2018 and 2021. Other emerging partners also are rapidly moving to fill the space left by the United States. Africa’s trade with Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, and Turkey increased by nearly 50 percent between 2010 and 2017.

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are proving to be vibrant places for investment, bilateral trade deals, and commercial business. Six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world in 2018 were located in Africa and, by 2030, Africa will be home to more than 1.7 billion people with a combined consumer and business spending of about $6.7 billion. These signals of growth and the potential for high returns on investment align with the United States’ principle of economic prosperity — it is time for the U.S. to recognize this fact and adapt its stance toward Africa.

Presidential visits, especially state visits, are one of the highest expressions of friendship and cooperation between two countries. For African countries, it is of great significance to host the presidents of great and emerging powers. China has not hesitated to pay respect and show expressions of friendship to African countries, which has contributed to the substantial increase of their investments, market shares and influence in Africa. Other leads who have visited Africa include Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, and United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May, all in 2018, and Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula to 21 African countries between 2003 and 2010. The lack of a U.S. presidential visit suggests that Africa is on the periphery of U.S. foreign policy.

The Trump administration has invited African leaders, including Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, to the White House instead of visiting the continent. In all, U.S. presidents have visited only 16 of the 54 African countries; most visits were to Egypt, where the United States has strategic and security ties. Hosting official state visits at the White House implies that Washington is the epicenter of U.S.-Africa relations and that the U.S. president determines relational priorities. The United States is getting it wrong.

Moving forward, the Trump administration should make it a priority to accelerate the implementation of a comprehensive, mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa strategy. The Prosper Africa initiative is a step toward increasing economic ties with African countries by investing in the private sector to improve the business climate across the continent, but USAID and other federal programs also must expand their focus toward sub-Saharan Africa and countries that have not been primary partners. A clear statement in support of the African Continental Free Trade Area would send a strong signal to Africa that the United States understands and is open to engagement with the continent in mutually beneficial ways.

President Trump should visit Africa in 2019 and engage in regional summits and bilateral meetings. That would encourage American investors and business leaders to shift toward Africa, and ultimately bolster U.S. interests and influence. The stakes are rising, and the United States must ensure it is not left behind.