The Trump administration has not had much to say about Africa, and what little it has said has been mostly nonsense or offensive, or both. First there was the President’s infamous “sx!#hole” comment, then his faint praise for the non-existent country of “Nambia,” not to mention the exaggerated tweet about “large scale killing of white farmers” in South Africa following a late-night segment on Fox TV. Given this record, it is not surprising that the administration’s new Africa Strategy also has very little to say about Africa — and everything to say about US geopolitical interests.
The Africa Strategy was launched last week by the National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington. This is an Africa strategy, Bolton proudly declared, that remains true to President Trump’s “central campaign promise to put the interests of the American People first, both at home and abroad.” From now on, “every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend will further US priorities in the region.”
First and foremost this seems to mean countering China and Russia in Africa. In language strikingly reminiscent of the Cold War, Bolton spoke at length about the “great power competitors” expanding their financial and political influence on the continent, “deliberately and aggressively” targeting investments to gain a competitive advantage over the United States. China came in for special criticism for its “bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt” to win over African states. China’s “predatory” actions on the continent are presented as part of a broader strategy to advance its global dominance, which, if successful, will shift the “balance of power” in its favour.
Russia is portrayed as not much better, seeking to increase its influence in the region through “corrupt” economic dealings, selling arms and energy to authoritarian leaders in return for votes at the UN. Russia also continues to “extract natural resources from the region for its own benefit.” Russia and China’s “predatory practices” are bad for Africa, bad for US investment, and “pose a significant threat to US national security interests.” The main purpose of the Africa Strategy is to counter this.
To this end, it sets out three priorities: first, to advance US trade and commercial ties with the continent on a bilateral basis, to the “benefit of both the United States and Africa.” One of the strategy’s few concrete new initiatives is “Prosper Africa,” which will “support US investment across the continent, grow Africa’s middle class, and improve the overall business climate in the region.” Bolton argues that the initiative will support American jobs and expand market access for US exports, while at the same time promoting sustainable growth in African countries. The latter seems more an afterthought than the prime objective.
Not surprisingly, the second priority is security, seeking to counter the threat from radical Islamic terrorism and violent conflict. While the Pentagon has announced that American military presence on the continent will be reduced by about 10%, the strategy emphasizes continued support for building Africa’s capacity to fight violent extremism. The G5 counter-terrorism co-operation between five states in the Sahel is given as an example of future regional security arrangements, whereas UN peacekeeping missions come in for scathing critique for failing to produce results and instead freezing “conflict in perpetuity.” Indeed, Bolton signals that the US will re-evaluate its support for UN missions on the continent, and also reconsider its aid to South Sudan.
The final priority follows a similar logic; henceforth US taxpayer dollars will not be wasted on “aid without effect, assistance without accountability, and relief without reform.” Of course, no donors would say otherwise, and it’s hard to say exactly what this priority means other than that the US will channel more of its aid through bilateral arrangements rather than multilateral organizations. The US is developing a new foreign assistance strategy, drawing inspiration from the “foundational principles of the Marshall Plan,” which, according to Bolton, furthered American interests by avoiding the UN and targeting specific economic sectors instead of “dissipating aid across hundreds of programs.” In other words, anticipate further intentional weakening of multilateral organizations and increasing use of bilateral aid for national interests.
There is nothing new in foreign policy being self-interested. This Africa Strategy is nevertheless notable for its unapologetic self-interest. In abandoning all but the most token references to poverty reduction and development, the strategy is best summed up as “Africa for America.” It is also notable for taking America’s geopolitical struggle to Africa, underlining US concern about Chinese and Russian influence on the continent. One function of the new strategy is thus to align the administration’s Africa policy with the National Defense Strategy’s shift in military focus away from counter-terrorism towards great power competition with Russia and China.
Bolton’s Cold War-like discourse is telling: Africa emerges as a passive terrain where “great powers” compete for influence and access to resources, its leaders seemingly unable to judge for themselves the opportunities and pitfalls of foreign engagements. China and Russia are “corrupt,” self-interested, and seeking undue influence. The US, by contrast, wants “African nations to succeed, flourish, and remain independent in fact and not just in theory.”
But much as Bolton wants to differentiate America from China and Russia, the Africa Strategy underlines their similarities. While castigating its two rival “great competitors” for pursuing their national interests, Bolton states that America will ensure that “all US foreign aid, in every corner of the globe, advances US interests.” And while Bolton lambastes Russia for exchanging support for votes in the UN, he states that “Countries that repeatedly vote against the United States in international forums, or take action counter to US interests, should not receive generous American foreign aid.” African leaders and civil society will no doubt recognize the Africa Strategy for what it is — an indication of the extent to which the US has abandoned appeals to broader developmental and democratic ideals in favour of a transactional approach.