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Maybe not so bad if Africa slips from Trump's radar

US President Donald Trump. Picture: Timothy A Clary

US President Donald Trump. Picture: Timothy A Clary

Published Jan 25, 2017


After his inauguration on Friday, Donald Trump's decidedly short inauguration speech evoked his central narrative of populism, with little foray into policy detail.

What is clear is that Trump intends to place primary focus on his domestic rather than international constituency.

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Speculation has ensued about whether he will make good on many of his unprecedented policy proposals, and about how they could affect Africa, the one continent which has barely been mentioned throughout his campaign.

It is therefore useful to take a look at the likelihood that Trump will stick to his guns (in all senses of the word), and the degree of difficulty in pushing these initiatives forward.

Climate change

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In 2015, the US was one of 172 countries to ratify the Paris Climate Change Agreement (COP 21), along with other major CO2 emitters such as China and India.

Trump has mocked the human contribution to climate change throughout his campaign, and gone as far as to say that he will leave the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

In Africa climate change is a continuing threat which disproportionately detriments the livelihoods of the most vulnerable.

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Can Trump, and will Trump, leave COP21? Despite his rhetoric, it is unlikely that he will pull out of the agreement. Most Americans support the general concept of environmental protection,so the pressure to act on this promise is not great.

In addition, COP21 is designed so that the process of exiting will take four years, and Trump could be on his way out of office by then.

That is, unless he decides to leave the UN Climate Pact altogether (in which case the US could exit COP21 within a year); however, this would cause more international upheaval than Trump is probably willing to face over the issue.

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However, just because Trump is unlikely to leave COP21, does not mean he cannot inflict harm on climate change initiatives. He might stay in the agreement, but choose to ignore most US CO2 targets to the degree that they constrain businesses.

Also, Trump may focus on reversing Barack Obama’s other domestic environmental legislation, in line with his central goal of reducing regulations for businesses. But this will also be easier said than done, as such actions will face a flurry of challenges from environmental NGOs and ultimately be decided in courts.

Trade agreements

Making good deals has been a hallmark of Trump’s campaign, and he has vowed to renegotiate “bad” trade deals so they reflect the Us's best interests.

Renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement has taken centre stage, and though this will probably take years, it will be one of the first items on Trump’s agenda. Trying to reconfigure trade with China may also be at the forefront, but will face much larger resistance from the US Congress.

And what about Agoa?

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) is an act passed by Congress under the Clinton administration which gives African countries preferential access to the US markets for a range of goods.

In spite of its flaws, it is a boon for many countries, particularly South Africa, which has benefited beyond resource extraction through manufacturing exports.

Trump probably views Agoa as uneven given it is not reciprocal; however, his focus on the act will probably be minimal. Most of the American public has never heard of Agoa, and the small amounts of manufactured goods imported do not make a big dent in US jobs. Agoa just might slip under the radar.

Perhaps more worrying is the initiation of negotiations for new, more reciprocal trade deals on the continent to replace Agoa after its expiry in 2025. Trump does not seem to have an appetite for forming new trade deals, and even if countries such as South Africa manage to bring him to the table, the likelihood of arriving at deals with favourable terms, or any deal at all, are slim.

Aid programmes

Trump has questioned the rationale of devoting money overseas when the US has pressing issues at home.

Perhaps most uncertain will be his approach to some of the largest recipients of US aid, such as Israel and Egypt, which have considerable geopolitical significance being in the Middle East.

And what will be the future of important USAid programmes to Africa, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), which has made significant inroads in the fight against HIV and Aids, and Young African Leaders Initiative, the US-African leaders summit which seeks to promote stronger entrepreneurship and youth development on the continent?

While Trump’s short-term transactional approach to politics probably sees little benefit in these aid programmes, African aid has received bipartisan support from Congress over multiple administrations.

Trump’s prospective secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has a much more global and long-term view, espoused the benefits of Pepfar in his confirmation hearing.

Trump will have to pick his battles when going against Congress and cabinet members, and it is safe to say African aid will not be a top battle chosen. He could possibly shave some money off these programmes as a part of his budget, but he will probably not gut them. However, hopes of additional funding or new programmes under Trump will probably not materialise.

Foreign relations and diplomacy

Though Trump has chided African dictators as well as corruption on the continent in the past, his primary focus on domestic issues and global non-interference imply that he will not significantly act on these statements.

Thus far Trump’s foreign policy strategy towards Africa seems to be decidedly lacking in comparison to other continents.

However, given Trump’s primary foreign policy concern is fighting terrorism, funds devoted to Africom military support will probably be safe when considering the threats of Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Trump’s diplomatic engagement in Africa will be rooted in his battle against China, which could benefit the continent through greater American investment in infrastructure in order to compete with the Chinese presence.

The overall takeaway from this analysis is that in the eyes of Trump, Africa is a small fish in a large pond of policy promises.

The fact that Africa may slip under Trump’s radar might not be a bad thing, considering his “America first” approach to international engagement.

The programmes in place will probably remain, and environmental protection might not be threatened to the extent that many fear.

However, perhaps most important to note is that if African countries are expecting high levels of collaboration and engagement with the US, this will probably be much more difficult than with past administrations.

It is therefore important for countries of the continent to be clear and united in their approach to US engagement, advocating the underutilised potential for American trade and investment on the continent, while at the same time continuing to put more emphasis on relations with other large global players.

– Markowitz is a researcher under the economic diplomacy programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs

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