Shortly before Christmas, John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, he of the large albino caterpillar on his upper lip, went to the Heritage Foundation, where Republicans are said to think, to unveil Trump’s Africa strategy.
It was, he said, “the result of an intensive interagency process”. The White House was proud to have produced the thing so quickly, “about two years earlier than the prior administration’s release of its Africa strategy”. As if anyone was keeping score.
“Under our new approach, every decision we make, every policy we pursue, every dollar of aid we spend will further US priorities in the region,” said the mustache. That previous administrations had any other priorities was news, at least to me. I don’t recall Chester Crocker, Ronald Reagan’s great proconsul, ever saying: “I’m doing this for Fiji.”
The mustache continued: “We want our economic partners in the region to thrive, prosper and control their own destinies.” Not just thrive, mind, but prosper as well! So clever, these Trumpsters, to see a distinction.
On the issue of own destiny control, the mustache elaborated: “We ask only for reciprocity, never for subservience.” African nations will be relieved to learn that Trump will not demand they fully prostrate themselves if they fail to reciprocate to his satisfaction. They will merely need to bend over.
It would, of course, be churlish to suggest that Trump was demanding subservience from Rwanda when he cancelled its access to the US market for refusing to import Chinese-made knickers discarded in America and washed in India.
Forget, too, that Trump, in expressing a preference for Nordic immigrants over those from Africa, once let slip a scatological epithet in reference to the continent. Africa, take heart, he means to rescue you, poor creatures of the outhouse, from recolonisation. He wants to be your new Fidel. He wants to set you free: “Enhancing US economic ties with the region…is vital to safeguarding the economic independence of African states.”
The dastardly Chinese and Russians “are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States”.
Ah, but they are so cunning and wicked. “China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands. Its investment ventures are riddled with corruption.” China’s and Russia’s “predatory practices…stunt economic growth” in Africa even as “the lack of economic progress in the region has accompanied the proliferation of Radical Islamic Terrorism.”
True, China has no Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, but let’s resist the temptation to elaborate on what has riddled most if not all of Trump’s ventures, and leave to another day a disquisition on how America’s laws and regulations are routinely written by the highest bidder.
What strikes me here, rather, is the casual discounting of African agency, the condescending reflex that Africans only control their own destinies if “great powers” let them, and the preposterous assertion that Uncle Sam, in the time of Trump, is Mr Integrity.
That said, I suppose one has to be grateful that “great power competitors, namely China and Russia” have inspired the Trump administration to take the continent at least a little bit seriously.
Having revealed their strategy, the Trumpsters are working on the tactics. These, they say, will include something called Prosper Africa.
Like everything Trump, it’s a branding exercise. It will be cobbled together from what the Trumpsters inherited from their betters — the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the HIV/AIDS programme PEPFAR, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, USAID’s Trade and Investment Hubs, Power Africa, the Young African Leadership Initiative — and from what they initially resisted, the BUILD act creating a new development finance agency with $60 billion to put in play.
They will pretend they have created something new and wonderful.