On November 8th, to everyone’s surprise, American voters – and perhaps to a lesser extent, Vladimir Putin – gave Donald Trump the keys to the Kingdom. As Trump prepares to assume the throne on January 20th, he’ll have a full plate of foreign policy challenges awaiting him on day one. Friends and foes alike – of which there seems to be little discernable difference most of the time – have got to be more than a little concerned as Trump will be like no other US president before him. And they know it.
Iran, Syria, North Korea and ISIS now comprise the 2017 iteration of the “Axis of Evil”, as George W. Bush so aptly coined it back in 2002. Then add in our “frenemies” like China and Russia (friends who are really enemies as my teenage daughter calls it) and the group resembles a school of piranhas waiting to strike a gravely injured fish swimming by. Each one poses multidimensional foreign policy nightmares for Trump – everything from armed conflicts at hot spots around the world to trade disagreements, nuclear threats, terrorism, cyber security and state-sponsored hacking, climate change, currency manipulation and energy.
Given these ever-amplifying foreign policy challenges that Trump will inherit from Barack Obama, one has to wonder what the US’s policy will be towards Africa – and other emerging markets. If I was the president of an African country right now, Trump’s election would be, shall we say, more than a little disconcerting.
Here’s why. The US’s view of the world is changing – as is the world’s view. Simply stated, much of Africa will not be a core strategic interest to the US under Trump. Historically, Africa as a whole has never been a policy priority for the US but did command differing levels of attention and assistance depending on who occupied the White House. Former President Bill Clinton signed AGOA (The African Growth and Opportunity Act) into law in 2000 but that was his primary contribution. Conversely, by far the worst atrocity during his time in office was that close to 1,000,000 Rwandans, mainly Tutsi, were killed in a brutal ethnic cleansing. Although the Clinton Administration and the international community, including the UN, was aware of the genocide taking place, no action was taken. President George W. Bush’s Africa policy was probably the most robust of any modern-day president. He provided US assistance in helping to end civil wars in Sudan, Congo, Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone even though direct American interests were not at risk. In his second term, he launched development programmes in several of these countries to help them recover on an economic and humanitarian level. President Obama, despite his Kenyan roots, has fallen short by most measures. But he continued to fund Aids programmes there increasing the number of people receiving treatment from 1.7 million to 6.7 million which is a notable achievement. And he introduced the much-touted Power Africa to try to address the critical power shortages across the continent although it has not lived up to the hype.
But Donald Trump will be markedly different than his predecessors. While it is obvious that any country’s foreign policy is ultimately for their benefit, Trump will take it to the extreme. His foreign policy will be formulated directly around his campaign slogan: “America First”. And he means it literally. Just like a new management team coming into a recently acquired company, Trump and his cabinet of supply-side business leaders and retired Generals will take a wrecking ball to those policies not considered strategically vital – and solidly in America’s interest. Nothing will be off the table.
Therein lies the problem for much of Africa. Is it essential to America – in the eyes of Donald Trump – to provide Africa with deep economic, humanitarian and military support that is funded by US taxpayer money?
There is little doubt in Washington’s diplomatic circles that Trump’s Africa policies will be a far cry from Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s. The first hint at how Africa would be viewed by the incoming Trump administration was gleaned during the presidential campaign. As a candidate, he paid little attention to Africa in his speeches and referred to the continent only in relation to al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and he came under fire for comments related to the large numbers of Somali refugees in Minnesota, a state Hillary Clinton later won. For the record, she never mentioned Africa either.
However, to comprehend how he will approach Africa and other geopolitical interests, one needs to understand what makes Donald Trump who he is. First and foremost, he’s a businessman. A negotiator. A dealmaker. A salesman. A closer. A showman. And second, he’s a New Yorker. Brash, in your face and no-holds barred. And he will become indignant if you cross him.
As a businessman, Trump sees everything through a single lens – return on investment (ROI). This is what he has based every business decision on for over 40 years. It’s the tape measure in his toolkit. It quantifies what he gets back on his investments. And now, as president, he will apply that same ratio to foreign policy to measure what America gets back from its allies. Simply stated, what is their ROI to the US? It is clear that Trump will run his administration more as a businessman and CEO, and less as a politician. On his desk in the Oval Office should be a nameplate that reads;
“Donald J. Trump: President and Dealmaker in Chief.”
The difficulty for Africa is that its geopolitical and economic value – as it relates to Trump’s vision for the US – simply won’t land it anywhere near the top of his list of foreign policy priorities. To Trump the businessman, much of Africa has a low ROI – certainly as compared to countries like the UK, France, Israel, Japan, South Korea and Germany not to mention “frenemies” like Russia and China.
There will, of course, continue to be trade between Africa and the US as commodities are always an economic driver irrespective of their current prices. But there is every reason to expect that under a Trump administration the US will be less engaged in Africa especially where it concerns the expenditure of taxpayer money on economic and humanitarian development initiatives. The reality is that the US is a net exporter of financial aid and humanitarian assistance to Africa – net of the commodities and resources that the US imports from it. And because of this, much of the continent will be caught in Trump’s crosshairs ultimately putting many of these important aid programmes at risk.
So what will be the defining theme with regards to the broader US policy on Africa under Trump? Simple. Combating terrorism.
Outside of oil and other extractive commodities, positioning the US for the fight against terror is Africa’s primary value to Trump. Stated more bluntly: kill ISIS and all its offspring. This is Africa’s ROI. The US faces serious and sustained security challenges across Africa. Terrorism, which not only has the capacity to destabilise key African countries is also a breeding ground for exporting violence to the US and Europe. Hot spots like Libya must build and maintain its government while fighting to eradicate ISIS. And the ISIS-aligned Nigerian militant group Boko Haram continues to wreak havoc as does al-Qaeda-linked Somali terror group Al-Shabab. As a result, the US will be forced to engage these terror threats emanating from across Africa.
But there is a real opportunity to broaden Trump’s limited policy view if African leaders choose to act upon it. The door remains very much open to them to reach out and appeal to Trump the businessman. Trump the dealmaker. Trump the negotiator. Trump the salesman. His ego would welcome it. African countries have the opportunity to change their relationship with the US – and take ownership of that process – instead of just waiting to see what Trump does. By acting proactively, it enables Africa to potentially increase its ROI – and change its link to the US from that of “donor-recipient” to one based on mutual benefit.
And that’s a deal that Donald Trump the businessman will make every time.
But so far, of the 54 nations that comprise Africa, only a handful of African presidents have reached out to congratulate Trump. Like him or not, he is the president of the world’s lone superpower and is reassessing everything. Therein lies the opportunity. The opening is there now.
So once Trump – the businessman – assumes the Presidency this month, it would probably be a good idea if the leaders of some of Africa’s other countries reached out to the new president with this message:
“We’re open for business. Let’s make a deal”.
That’s a message he’ll definitely understand.
*David S. Levin is a Managing Partner at Nexus Capital Markets, LLC, micro-Blogging on all things Africa. A New York investor’s view of Africa and other emerging economies. Nexus Capital Markets is a leading Pan-African/U.S. investment bank located in NY and JHB.