Trump’s Africa policy takes form with focus on security (and China)

Editor's note:

This piece was originally published by The Hill on March 19, 2018.

Before being fired by President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson concluded his first and last official visit to Sub-Saharan Africa on March 12, after a one-week trip to Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Chad and Nigeria. His itinerary, along with the president’s statements, suggest U.S. policy toward the continent under the Trump administration will focus on security and countering China’s influence. Additionally, Trump’s decision to replace Tillerson as the head of the State Department with CIA Director Mike Pompeo tends to reinforce the security focus of U.S. foreign policy.

In fact, there is little doubt that combating the spread of extremist groups remains of utmost importance to the United States’ Africa policy. One of Trump’s first decisions upon taking office was to impose a travel ban—currently affecting Libya, Somalia and Chad—to protect America against terrorist activities. Each nation that Secretary Tillerson visited is a crucial partner in maintaining regional peace or in fighting terrorism in Africa.

Ethiopia and Kenya contribute large numbers of peacekeepers who have been essential in combating the Somali insurgent group al-Shabab. Nigeria is the country most affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, while Chad’s military has played a crucial role in containing the group. Other than outposts, Djibouti hosts the United States’ largest and only official military base on the continent, home to some 4,000 permanently stationed U.S. troops.

The current focus of U.S. assistance efforts on the continent is to mitigate ongoing conflicts. The United States is already Africa’s largest supplier of military assistance and biggest supporter of peacekeeping operations. In addition, the nearly $533 million that Tillerson pledged in additional aid will go toward fighting famine and food insecurity in war-torn regions of South Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia and other countries. Critics long have worried about a trend towards the “militarization” of U.S. foreign policy, as the United States increasingly has become engaged in security matters. The Trump administration’s choice to disburse aid to conflict zones, even as it contemplates cuts to aid elsewhere, appears to amplify this shift in U.S. aid policy.

A final piece of evidence for the Trump’s security-oriented approach to Africa comes from Tillerson’s statements about China’s increasing influence. Last year, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Tillerson called out China for encouraging dependency “using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty.” As an alternative, he lauded the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, which ties development assistance to good governance. However, peaceful, reasonably well-governed, democratic countries such as Ghana and South Africa—the largest U.S. trade partner in the region—often visited by past U.S. leaders, failed to make the cut for Tillerson’s first visit.

Of course, promoting continental security and prosperity is not necessarily a zero-sum game. In his March 6 speech at George Mason University, Tillerson stressed the exponential economic growth and opportunities of the continent, calling the region “a significant part of the future.” And in addition to their status as key security partners, the states that Trump’s top diplomat chose to visit are economically important as well. Three of the five countries—Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya—are among the top five African markets for U.S. goods. Nigeria and Chad are among the top five sub-Saharan exporters to the United States. As noted recently in The Hill, “the continent is likely to present $5.6 trillion in market opportunities and a population of over 1.52 billion consumers by 2025.” Tillerson’s itinerary may have been motivated in part by a desire to improve or solidify economic ties.

Yet the administration’s turn toward economic nationalism may make efforts to improve economic ties more difficult. Before his departure to Africa, Tillerson lauded the Clinton administration’s efforts to promote trade, the Bush administration’s initiatives to fight HIV/AIDS, and the Obama administration’s program to provide access to electricity. However, the Trump administration’s FY 2019 budget proposes cutting diplomatic and development spending by one-quarter, including the programs to fight AIDS and provide power that the secretary just praised.

While China has become Africa’s largest trade partner, trade between the United States and Africa has substantially decreased. Finally, the administration’s immigration policy, and its recent turn towards protectionism, may further limit the ability of the United States to foster economic relations through trade and investment.

Trump’s efforts to refocus U.S. policy in Africa in a direction that is more realpolitik is not a huge departure from previous Republican administrations. Yet by prioritizing security and cutting back on aid and trade, the United States may weaken its long-term strategic position on the continent.