Donald Trump could be getting his US-Africa policy right by simply not having one

L-R: Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta, Guinea’s Alpha Conde, Donald Trump, AfDB’s Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria’s Yemi Osinbajo and Ethiopia’’s PM Hailemariam Desalegn at the G7 in May.
L-R: Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta, Guinea’s Alpha Conde, Donald Trump, AfDB’s Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria’s Yemi Osinbajo and Ethiopia’’s PM Hailemariam Desalegn at the G7 in May.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Last week, secretary of state Rex Tillerson made one of his rare press appearances to give a tour d’horizon of US foreign policy priorities. In his lengthy and candid remarks he touched on North Korea, China, Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela, among other issues–but made no mention of Africa.

This omission reflects the reality that Africa is terra incognita for the Trump Administration: a continent it cares little—and understands even less—about. With no dyed-in-the-wool Trumpian Africa hands available, the administration appears ready to cede Africa policy making to career civil servants and a few mainstream Republican appointees.

Guided by this team of low-key professionals, could president Trump’s Africa policy turn out to be more pragmatic than extreme? Could it steer clear of Trump’s trademark controversies and missteps? Many of the signs point to yes: with luck, bureaucratic effort, and Congressional top cover, US Africa policy under Trump might remain relatively fumble-free.

Adrift on Africa?

During Trump’s first six months in office, US-Africa policy has been adrift. At no time since before the creation of the State Department’s Africa Bureau in 1958—a time when most African nations were still European colonies—has Washington been so distracted and disengaged.

Prospective budget and organizational cuts suggest Trump—unlike George W. Bush—does not see promoting good governance, human rights, and socioeconomic development as a strategic US interest. Trump’s senior officials reportedly do not take Africa-related issues seriously, urging subordinates to keep them off their plate. They have thus far shown little interest in engaging with African countries beyond making business deals and leveraging military ties.

Perhaps because of this ambivalence, ambassador John Campbell’s prediction last December that “career civil servants and diplomats, together with Congress, will play a big role in setting policy” has largely borne out. Key Republican senators derisively view secretary Tillerson’s proposal to make deep discretionary cuts to his department; Democrats call Tillerson’s plan “a devastating assault on American interests and values”.

Congressional pushback from Republican Africa stalwarts like Sen. Jeff Flake, and Rep. Ed Royce and Rep. Chris Smith will also intensify if Trump tries to undermine longstanding bipartisan programs, like the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Congress will also weigh in on Trump’s forthcoming Africa appointments.

Personnel Problems

At least one of these appointments—Trump’s new senior director for Africa Cyril Sartor—started work at the National Security last week. After a painful ten month-long vacancy, Sartor—a dour but Africa-savvy CIA mandarin–stepped into the breach. Tasked with advising senior administration officials and coordinating interagency decision-making on Africa, Sartor is a veteran bureaucratic gladiator that will resist any effort to politicize his portfolio.

Beyond naming Sartor, the Trump administration has failed to fill out its Africa team. At the State Department, the job of assistant secretary of state for African Affairs remains unfilled. Career diplomat Peter Barlerin–a trained economist that has yet to serve as an ambassador–has been treading water as Acting Assistant Secretary for several months. As a result, the Bureau and its 45 embassies across Africa continue to operate much as they did before with little—if any—new country-specific guidance.

The likeliest candidate for assistant secretary is Vatican-diplomat-turned-Africa-wonk Dr. J. Peter Pham. A prolific writer with a hard-nosed Africa policy strategy ready to go, Pham lacks strong ties to his prospective boss. Secretary Tillerson reportedly has vacillated over naming Pham, despite his preeminence among the GOP’s miniscule cadre of Africanists.

At the Department of Defense (DOD), seasoned civil servant Amanda Dory stepped down as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Africa earlier this year. Dory’s unexpected departure thrust her newly-minted deputy Michelle Lenihan into an acting role. On the military side, Air Force Major General Curtis L. Williams recently became chairman of the joint chief’s in-house Africa advisor.

Over at the embattled US Agency for International Development (USAID)–still in danger of being dismantled by Trump–career professional Cheryl L. Anderson has been Acting Assistant Administrator for Africa. Newly confirmed USAID administrator Mark Green, a widely respected former ambassador to Tanzania, likely will pick her replacement soon.

Dabbling Donald?

As new appointees slowly come on board, US-Africa policy will regain some of its shape and direction. Less liberal and ambitious than under previous administrations, its focus democracy, development, and human rights will diminish. Guided by apolitical professionals, it almost certainly will not reflect Trump’s bigoted, anti-humanist world view.

But what if Trump tries to dabble in Africa policymaking? How would these policy professionals cope? After all, Trump’s penchant for praising autocratic leaders could, for example, complicate efforts by US officials to nudge the continent’s strongmen leaders to relinquish power and hold credible elections. Trump’s ‘hashtag diplomacy’ could also spark an international incident.

If Trump and his top lieutenants continue to show as little interest in Africa as they do now, the chance of one of these scenarios playing out seems remote. If this dynamic changes, however, Washington’s beleaguered Africa policymakers will have just one option left: damage control.