On Africa, will isolationist Trump fight an internationalist Congress?
© Getty Images

President George W. Bush's administration surprised Africans: U.S. exports to Africa doubled, overall trade volume tripled and U.S. foreign aid to the continent quadrupled.

The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and Millennium Challenge Corporation money drove the bulk of the aid increase.

President Obama was at least as proactive, launching the Security and Governance Initiative, hosting a major summit for African leaders, creating the Young African Leaders Initiative and frequently visiting the continent.

ADVERTISEMENT

The two administrations certainly had critics and deep differences: Bush's term was capped by the Pentagon's contentious Africa Command (AFRICOM). Progressives resented Obama's embrace of AFRICOM, and he struggled to persuade Republicans that religion and violent extremism are distinct ideas that sometimes overlap.

But both administrations embraced a meaningful commitment to internationalism. In Bush's case, this of course manifested itself in disastrous military adventurism in Iraq using $4.5 trillion dollars of borrowed money — even though he campaigned in 2000 against nation-building.

President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE's departure from both varieties of internationalism could signal a sharp turn away from Africa.

In July 2015, he tweeted "Obama is in Africa pledging 1billion dollars to help them. How about that money to help America. Trump for POTUS."

In various speeches, he declared that the United States should "stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us" and should instead "invest in our infrastructure."

However, Trump's isolationism will face even more resistance in Washington than his unilaterialism. His short-lived honeymoon period will end when he discovers that, as with a range of policies such as the Keynesian infrastructure spending he promises, he must choose between alienating his base and alienating his party.

While most attention since the election has focused on Trump's protectionism, his supporters draw upon public skepticism about foreign aid, too.

A Pew Research Center survey earlier this year found that opinion "is divided over whether the U.S. should increase foreign aid to developing countries. Half of the country (50%) is opposed while a roughly equal share (48%) would support increasing foreign aid."

The opposition, though, is rooted in huge overestimations of what the U.S. spends on aid: According to another study, the average guess is 26 percent of the federal budget.

When respondents learn it is less than 1 percent, only 28 percent of Americans continue to say the government spends too much on aid.

It is hard to say that Trump is in this 28 percent, because alongside his attacks on foreign aid, he has also said that "if we don't help" countries facing disasters, then it would create "bigger problems."

Regarding assistance to assist poor countries, he said he would "try to keep some of these countries going" while underscoring the domestic fiscal challenges facing the U.S.

He even declared at one point that he would double the number of people receiving HIV/AIDS treatment worldwide through PEPFAR.

If the isolationist Trump proposes African disengagement, he'll confront a creative coalition that voted for lowering tariffs through the African Growth and Opportunity Act; argued for ending atrocities in Darfur, Sudan; and assisted in the liberation of South Sudan.

Trump's isolationism will soon face a critical test with congressional support for engagement and humanitarianism with Nigeria. According to UNICEF, "An estimated 400,000 children under five will suffer from severe acute malnutrition in three states across the northeast this year. More than 4 million people are facing severe food shortages and 65,000 people are living in famine-like conditions."

I witnessed some of these conditions on my 800-kilometer road trip in September from the capital of Abuja to rural Adamawa state.

Congress is paying attention. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa pointed out at a 2015 hearing the benefits of cooperation with Nigeria, further noting that it "consistently ranks among the top recipients of U.S. bilateral foreign assistance, and it is the second largest beneficiary of U.S. investment in Africa."

Democrats like Rep. Frederica WilsonFrederica Patricia WilsonOvernight Defense: US shoots down Iranian drone | Pentagon sending 500 more troops to Saudi Arabia | Trump mulls Turkey sanctions | Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract Pentagon contractor charged with threatening to kill Rep. Frederica Wilson: report Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment MORE (D-Fla.) brought Nigeria to the attention of new constituencies through her support for the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Nigeria Caucus, recently participated in a briefing on the humanitarian crisis.

Faith-based groups seek to protect minority religious groups in the north, and joined progressive groups in pushing the Senate to recently confirm a very promising new ambassador to Nigeria, Stuart Symington.

Humanitarian relief to the Lake Chad region has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, too. This area, including northeastern Nigeria, has been decimated by Boko Haram's terrorism as well as decades of climate change that's drying up water sources.

Over the last year, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has provided about $360 million in aid to assist millions of displaced persons.

Soon it will be up to Congress to minimally maintain the current funding of level of $2.8 billion in the International Disaster Assistance account, as well as the $1.6 billion that the Senate authorized for Food for Peace.

That bipartisan coalition will then have to explain how 1 percent of the budget buys more human security and goodwill than the guns and bombs that often follow without it.

A. Carl LeVan is an associate professor at American University; was a local co-chair of the African Studies Association's annual meeting in Washington (held Dec. 1-3); and is the author of "Dictators and Democracy in African Development: The Political Economy of Good Governance in Nigeria."


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