Why Trump should make Africa a foreign policy priority

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Now that the most rancorous election campaign in living memory is over, if Americans are to “bind the wounds of division,” as President-elect Donald Trump called for in his magnanimous victory speech, and come together “on one team” after this “intramural scrimmage,” as President Obama put it in his remarks on the morrow of election day, then what is needed during this transition period is to identify some policy areas where genuine bipartisan consensus can be found around measures consonant with the new administration’s articulated policy vision to provide it with some early leadership successes.

{mosads}On the foreign policy front, Africa stands out as one such opportunity — a somewhat ironic twist, given that it hardly came up at all during the race and was not even mentioned explicitly by either candidate in their three presidential debate encounters.

But why should a Trump administration, arriving in office without having had to pay much heed to Africans, their advocates or concerns, now make a priority of these?

First, it was the president-elect himself who declared in his major foreign policy address at the Center for the National Interest in April: “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else.”

Not only does Africa hold 95 percent of the world’s reserves of platinum group metals, 90 percent of its chromite ore reserves and 80 percent of its phosphate rock reserves, as well as more than half of its cobalt and one-third of its bauxite, the continent is home to some of fastest-growing economies in the world, including no fewer than six of the World Bank’s shortlist of 13 highest compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) countries for the 2014-2017 period.

Quite simply, because of this economic dynamism as well as the very real security, humanitarian and developmental challenges that are still found there, the foreign policy approach based on American interests and the shared interests of her allies in stability and prosperity that Trump has called for cannot but include a significant African dimension.

Second, there is a pragmatic political calculus of demonstrating early on that, despite the worst forebodings of its detractors, the new administration can get things done internationally.

Somewhat exceptional in a Washington riven by hyper-partisan politics and dysfunctional gridlock, the Africa constituency has long been characterized by bipartisan comity.

For example, last year the House of Representatives and Senate renewed for 10 years the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), first signed into law by President Bill Clinton and subsequently expanded and extended under President George W. Bush, by lopsided margins of 394-37 and 97-1, respectively. Both the Republican and Democratic platforms this year extolled “Africa’s extraordinary potential.”

Thus, on a range of issues relating to that increasingly strategically important continent, there is a potential agenda for action which the incoming Trump administration, supported by its Republican majorities in Congress, might find common ground with Democrats.

A few preliminary considerations:

Security. The presence across Africa of militant Islamist groups, some with links to al Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), continues to threaten not only the countries immediately affected, but also the interests and security of the United States and its allies in Europe.

In August, in his Youngstown, Ohio, speech on fighting terrorism, Trump declared that halting the spread of radical Islamism and jihadist violence would be a cornerstone of his foreign policy and that “all actions should be oriented around this goal, and any country which shares this goal will be our ally.” With ISIS- and al Qaeda-affiliated groups — including Boko Haram, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabaab, among others — wreaking havoc across the continent, there are plenty of opportunities for closer cooperation with countries on the front lines of the battle of our times.

While most of the heavy lifting can be done by partner countries — I returned this past week from Nigeria where I had the opportunity to see firsthand the progress made by that country’s army as it has liberated territory from Boko Haram terrorists — there will be some circumstances where the U.S. armed forces will have to act.

To that end, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the geographic combatant command responsible for implementing whatever military operations are deemed necessary, whether assisting African allies to fight common threats or taking direct action against terrorists, needs to be properly resourced — which can best be achieved by repealing the defense sequester, as the Trump campaign’s national defense policy position statement has called for.

Business. Africa beckons American businesses with significant opportunities. While AGOA has increased overall U.S. trade in goods with the continent in the decade-and-a-half since its enactment — and supported some 120,000 export-related jobs for American workers — by itself, the legislation is not enough to maintain America’s edge.

In fact, since 2009, China has surpassed the United States to become Africa’s largest trading partner. Moreover, given constraints imposed by current fiscal realities — to say nothing of the political demand by the American electorate to rebuild the country’s own crumbling infrastructure at home, a point highlighted by the president-elect’s campaign — it must be understood that advancing U.S. economic interests in Africa will, and must be, driven primarily by the private sector.

But there is plenty of scope for the new administration and Congress to make it easier for American businesses to compete. Over the long run, AGOA is a unilateral concession that needs to be replaced with a comprehensive and balanced arrangement (currently, Morocco is the only African country with a reciprocal free-trade agreement that allows almost all U.S. consumer and industrial goods to be exported without tariffs and guarantees American firms significant protections for their investments and intellectual property).

Diplomacy. In 2009, while the Obama administration took only four months to install veteran diplomat Johnnie Carson as assistant secretary of State for African affairs, an ambassador to the African Union was not on post until nine months after the new president’s swearing in and there was no permanent, Senate-confirmed assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) until April 2012.

This pattern cannot be allowed to repeat itself in the current transition because the geopolitical stakes are even higher than they were eight years ago.

To cite just four data points: The 54 African countries represent the largest geographical bloc in most international organizations; the most recent edition of the Global Terrorism Index indicated that not only is Nigeria’s Boko Haram the world’s deadliest terrorist group, overtaking ISIS, but that three of the five deadliest groups are African; a leaked National Counterterrorism Center “heat map,” dated August 2016, showed eight African countries with fully operational ISIS branches (out of 18 globally); and, earlier this year, China broke ground on its first overseas military base anywhere, in the small East African nation of Djibouti. South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are just two of the crises that will be burning hot the day Trump takes the oath of office.

Foreign Assistance. Whenever disaster strikes in Africa, the American people have consistently responded with greater generosity than any other country.

Whether it is famine in Somalia or the Ebola virus in West Africa, the United States is consistently the largest national provider of and, usually, the first to deliver relief.

At the same time, the delivery of aid is too often bogged down by bureaucratic hurdles and special interests. Humanitarian assistance should be reformed to maximize efficiency, eliminating duplication, minimizing costs and ensuring that finite resources benefit as many people as possible, while development funding, if it is to remain sustainable in the current political climate, needs to show to Congress and the American people that it is a value-added proposition.

Fiascos like the awarding of more than $110 million in Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) contracts in Mali to a Chinese state-owned company, Sinohydro, during the George W. Bush administration or the Obama administration’s signing a $540 million MCC compact with Senegal at a time when then-President Abdoulaye Wade had handed control over nearly half of the national budget to his son (who was subsequently tried, convicted and jailed for corruption under the successive democratically elected government) hardly help the case for American investment in foreign assistance.

Thus the arrival of a new administration, especially one that is decidedly very much not business-as-usual, affords a unique opportunity to seriously rethink the U.S. approach to both humanitarian assistance and international development.

No one pretends that Trump was the pick of most of the Africa constituency within the foreign policy community. Nevertheless, as Hillary Clinton said very graciously in her concession speech, Trump won the election and now deserves the benefit of open minds and a chance to lead.

The president-elect set as his foreign policy goals to “advance America’s core national interests, promote regional stability, and produce an easing of tensions in the world.” In Africa, at least, there is plenty of scope for his administration to do all three.

Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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