Donald Trump was propelled to the US presidency by promising to rewrite globalisation rules. This included restricting trade when it directly hurt the US, clamping down on immigration, and reducing commitments to the global order. His administration’s “America First” foreign policy also meant disengaging from its obligations to Africa, which he infamously referred to as “shit-hole countries”.
Historically, the US foreign policy approach to Africa could be classified as benign neglect. This was characterised by a general lack of interest in the continent in the pre–World War II era. After World War II, US policy involved engaging or disengaging with individual countries, mostly defined in terms of counteracting the Soviet Union’s attempt to gain influence in the region.
A serious and sustained US–Africa engagement began under the Clinton administration. It subsequently deepened with significant bipartisan support. Indeed, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations saw a remarkable continuity in both the Congress and the White House on the US agenda in Africa.
Africa’s share of annual US foreign assistance funding increased over the past two decades. Although US development and security aid to Africa grew, part of the increase was in support of President George W. Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), launched in 2003. Under President Obama US aid allocated to Africa fluctuated between $7 billion and $8 billion annually.
Trump’s election signalled a radical break with this consensus. His approach represented, in part, a return to the pre-Clinton era. Notwithstanding the administration’s rhetoric, however, Africa continued to receive roughly $7 billion in annual US aid allocations in its first three years.
US-Africa trade fell to approximately $41 billion in 2018, down from a high of $100 billion in 2008. On the whole, African countries have continued to export natural resources, such as petroleum and metals, to the US. Since 2000, the African Growth and Opportunity Act has been the main channel through which trade is conducted. It provides tariff-free access to 6,900 products from 39 countries.
In our paper, we show how the Trump administration’s policies affected Africa in detrimental ways.
Malign neglect of Africa
Under Trump’s administration, investment policy was driven by the push to open up markets for US goods and services. Its trade policy favoured bilateral, rather than multilateral, agreements. This shift, if sustained, could have undermined the growth of smaller countries, such as Lesotho. This is because such economies may not be of enough economic interest to the US to warrant a separate trade deal.
There were also punitive measures against countries that went against the administration’s expectations of reciprocal “free” trade. For instance, Rwanda was suspended from tariff free access to the US market after it introduced substantial duties on imports of second hand clothes. This came on the back of lobbying by second hand clothing exporters association in the US.
The administration’s largely uninterested stance may also have had detrimental effects on US foreign private investment to Africa. US foreign direct investment in Africa decreased from $50.4 billion in 2017 to $43.2 billion in 2019. This 14 percent decline came at a time when other countries like China were increasing their investments in the region.
The administration also crippled the capacity of the State Department and its international assistance agency by failing to fill essential positions in these agencies and through budget cuts. Such actions strained relationships and cut lines of communication.
Trump’s “Muslim” travel ban denied entry to nationals of a number of Muslim-majority countries, including several African ones. Imposed under the banner of US security, it had the effect of further reinforcing negative images of the continent as a place of insecurity and danger.
The Trump administration periodically expressed concern about the supposedly nefarious and negative impacts of Chinese engagement on the continent. Yet the impact of its own policies has been to reduce US influence in the region and further “open up the playing field” for Chinese actors.
The loss of US hegemony on the continent is evidenced by the diversifying of Africa’s foreign direct investment sources. It is also visible in shifts in its trade with key foreign partners, and increased diplomatic representation of other countries in Africa.
Joe Biden’s administration will likely result in some change and some continuity in Africa policy. Official ties are expected to become more diplomatic and certain policies – such as the so-called “Muslim travel ban” – may be reversed. But some significant questions remain as to its direction.
By and large, US policies towards Africa will likely be driven by a relatively narrow geopolitical gaze. This views the continent as a source of insecurity and site for humanitarian assistance. Combined with the scale of domestic problems arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and the perceived imperative to contain China, Africa will likely elicit only occasional strategic interest.
US focus on its national security imperatives will remain a primary policy area. New partnerships and initiatives – with Nigeria and Mozambique, for instance – are informed in large part by Islamic fundamentalist insurgencies there. The Trump administration greatly expanded the use of American air and ground strikes in hot-spots like Somalia. This is a policy that Biden is likely to continue, even if operations are scaled back somewhat.
Great power competition with China plays a significant role in US-Africa relations. The Trump administration’s “Prosper Africa” plan, meant to double US-Africa trade and investment, was presented as an American response to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. However, Prosper Africa lacked the funding to accomplish its goals. In reality, it amounted to a coordination and consolidation of the different strands of US bureaucracy on the continent.
Biden’s administration will likely continue the existing discursive pattern of great power competition. But the focus, given his policy history, may move to revitalising multilateralism and supporting the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
With regard to trade, the big question facing the new administration will be the future of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which expires in 2025. Though tariff free access retains bipartisan support, the Trump administration was in the process of moving towards bilateral engagement, as evidenced by its ongoing attempt to create a “model” free trade agreement with Kenya.
Such free trade deals would change the nature of the US-Africa trade partnership in two main ways. They would give further emphasis to reciprocal trade concessions, and would likely require further watering down or elimination of policies designed to help nascent economic sectors in African countries, particularly manufacturing.
Finally, the US-Africa relationship has been characterised by “signature” initiatives. George W. Bush’s had the President’s Emergency Plan For Aids Relief , Obama’s had “Power Africa” and Trump touted Prosper Africa. Biden will likely seek to continue this tradition, though exactly how remains to be seen.
Francis Owusu is professor, Iowa State University; Padraig Carmody is professor in Geography, Trinity College Dublin