In a relatively short speech Thursday morning at Washington’s Heritage Foundation, President Trump’s current National Security Advisor John Bolton was said to announce the administration’s “new Africa policy”. Amb. Bolton stuck out during the George W. Bush Administration as both an aggressive hardliner by reputation on policy and as willing to fight hard within the bureaucracy. So no surprise that Bolton says we are not going to let the spigot run on aid projects or peacekeeping missions that are not “winning”, and will target programs more strategically to better match quids and pros, and such.
Overall, Bolton calls the policy “Prosper Africa”. He emphasizes concerns about the perceived unhealthy influence of China and Russia in Africa and frames U.S. interests as focused on competition among external powers. We want Africa to “prosper” through a growing middle class and business deals creating jobs and other benefits in both the U.S. and partner countries and in so doing to strengthen our influence and reduce that of our competitors. We intend to (continue to) play favorites, but in a more explicit and direct way, emphasizing “anchor” governments like Kenya (still our sentimental favorite African country) rather than focusing directly on poverty alleviation or “Sustainable Development Goals” as a global construct.
It seems to have raised eyebrows that Bolton did not mention PEPFAR and democracy and elections among other categories of assistance that we have emphasized both with rhetoric and dollars under Trump’s most recent predecessors. Contra some initial reactions, I anticipate that any major expenditure of political capital by the Administration with Congress to engineer large cuts to popular existing programs is not in the offing.
In fact, when the White House issued a press release “fact sheet” later in the afternoon reporting that it “was issuing” President Trump’s “new Africa policy” it explicitly mentioned “democracy” twice and otherwise sanded down Bolton’s sharper edges. Democracy, especially, as well as our health programs, are a comparative advantage for the United States vis-a-vis the PRC if we want to re-frame our rationale more explicitly in terms of traditional geopolitical competition.
The origins of U.S. development assistance philosophy come from offering a competing model to communism, especially following World War II and to some extent even earlier. Likewise U.S. overt explicit democracy assistance programs were established during the Reagan Administration. So talking more openly and frankly about our concerns about China’s role in Africa in the context of a recalibrated overall relationship that accounts for the Chinese Communist Party’s changes under Xi does not at all have to lead to a retreat from development or democracy assistance.
What plays out over the next two years from any of this remains to be seen.
Instructive are today’s two votes in the Republican led Senate approving resolutions calling for an end to support for Saudi Arabian war efforts in Yemen and condemning the role of the Crown Prince in the murder of American resident Jamal Khashoggi. The peak of unilateral latitude for the Trump Administration has already passed, even before the new Democratic controlled House is seated in the new Congress in January.
Testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, by Judd Devermont, now Africa Diector at venerable Center for Strategic and International Studies, and recently national intelligence officer for Africa, gives a fuller and more nuanced picture of the range of Chinese involvement in Africa. Not all of it is necessarily contradictory to our immediate interests or longer term hopes, even though there are important concerns.
From my personal standpoint, I am still struck by the fact that according to what I read in the newspapers, combined with a letter from Washington, the Chinese hacked my security clearance file–and that of nearly every other clearance holder–from the Office of Personnel Management in Washington during the last Administration. (I also read they “wired” the African Union headquarters, among many other examples.) As for the Russians, they were screwing around in our own Republican Party and to some extent with our general election campaign.
Thus, we most need to be competent, purposeful and mature in conducting our own business in an environment which can be expected to punish complacency. Get through this temporary period of governance by Tweet and tabloid huckster hush money and get our own democracy back on a more even keel. Then we can more effectively deepen our relationships among African countries and with African citizens for the long run. In the meantime, I hope and expect that we will continue most of the incrementally helpful things we have been doing in Africa and not rock the boat too dramatically.
In the meantime, worth noting, for instance, is the presence of Somaliland’s Foreign Minister at Bolton’s speech.
What to make of the policy being announced by Bolton at Heritage instead of by the Secretary of State in an official or semi-official venue? Probably the same reason there are not details and documents: a point of the event is to stamp Bolton’s ideological role within the Administration, the Republican Party, and “The Movement” (big “C” Conservatism with American characteristics is how I might describe it). This is “framing” and “vision” with various audiences rather than actual “policy” as such.
It takes cognizance especially of the geopolitical struggle most compelling on a day-to-day basis in the White House: “red” versus “blue” in the rest of the United States. Thus the focus on competition with “Obama” as a symbol of “blue” who did not announce his “new Africa policy” until nearly the end of his first term. Bolton is a guy with seven pictures of himself on his Twitter profile who tried to mount his own run for President: he obviously enjoys the spotlight and enjoys being a lightening rod for the arena. More substantively, it announces the drawing of a line of demarcation against the perceived “feckless liberalism” of Obama and the perceived namby-pamby do-gooder “compassionate conservatism” that sometimes fuzzed the focus of G.W. Bush in Africa. “Africa” is to be normalized as a geographic space.
Realism of course tells us that the Americans who will make the day to day decisions that actually determine our role in the various African countries do not report to Bolton and that any deep reorientation of policy will require more time and attention than Trump and his cabinet as a whole likely have left in this term. This could tell us much more about what to expect if Trump were re-elected or if the next Administration involved a similar role for Bolton and like-minded officials.
Realism also notes the Administration lost votes on two foreign policy resolutions in the Senate between Bolton’s speech and the White House press release.