During the Cold War, American policymakers frequently pushed nonaligned countries to take sides. The Central Intelligence Agency fomented coups against governments that flirted with communism and the Soviet Union, or that just drifted too far to the left for comfort. The State Department threatened to cut aid flows to countries that voted too often against U.S. priorities at the United Nations. Could sub-Saharan Africa find itself caught in the middle again if a cold war with China breaks out?
In a speech at the Heritage Foundation last December, President Donald Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, launched a new initiative called “Prosper Africa” that he said was aimed at promoting trade and commercial ties “to the benefit of both the United States and Africa.” But there are a number of reasons for African governments to be concerned about what the administration really has in mind.
First of all, Bolton cast the goal of increased economic engagement as something necessary for “safeguarding the economic independence of African states and protecting U.S. national security interests,” not as something helpful for African economic development. He pointed to the growing influence of “great power competitors,” China and Russia, which he suggested were investing in Africa mainly “to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.” While there are certainly valid concerns about some of China’s foreign aid and lending practices in Africa and other developing countries, African governments have generally welcomed Chinese aid and investment. It’s not at all clear they would agree that this is a competition where they must choose one side or the other.
A second reason to be skeptical of how seriously this administration takes the goal of helping Africa develop is the low level of U.S. engagement to date. President Donald Trump has not visited the continent; his wife and daughter have in trips heavy on photo ops but light on policy substance. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross—hardly the most dynamic member of the Cabinet—was supposed to represent the administration last month at the U.S.-Africa Business Summit in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, where details of the Prosper Africa initiative were announced. But he cancelled at the last minute because of a “scheduling conflict,” according to his office, sending Deputy Secretary of Commerce Karen Dunn Kelley instead.
By contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping has visited Africa multiple times and has welcomed a stream of African officials to Beijing. Russian President Vladimir Putin will host 50 African leaders at a summit in Sochi later this year. Gyude Moore, a former minister of public works in Liberia (he’s now my colleague at the Center for Global Development), called the lack of Cabinet-level U.S. participation at the Maputo meeting insulting.
There are a number of reasons for African governments to be concerned about what the Trump administration really has in mind.
So it should be no surprise that when he discussed trade, Bolton emphasized American jobs and exports to Africa. He said that the administration wants to pursue “modern, comprehensive trade agreements… that ensure fair and reciprocal exchange.” In recent congressional testimony, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer also reiterated the administration’s goal of negotiating a bilateral trade agreement with an African country that could become a model for others. Negotiators for a little country, negotiating with a big country like the United States, might wonder just what reciprocity means in that context.
If more than two decades of history is any guide, negotiating a trade deal with the United States will mean more or less accepting whatever text American negotiators put in front of their counterparts, including onerous demands for strict intellectual property protections that could increase prices for drugs and agricultural inputs. Negotiating with one country at a time is also problematic because most African countries are party to one or more regional communities, which they are stitching together in a single, continent-wide free trade agreement that just formally entered into force. The continent—home to a large number of small economies, many of them landlocked—desperately needs more regional integration to increase its competitiveness by lowering transportation and other costs of trade and achieving economies of scale.
Beyond these problematic trade plans, what else is in the administration’s Prosper Africa initiative? Its second stated aim is to engage the private sector and double U.S. trade with and investment in Africa. According to Kelley’s remarks in Maputo, two of the three strands of the program are aimed at helping American companies find and close deals across Africa by streamlining and better coordinating U.S. government activities that provide information, financing and risk insurance to the private sector. She also suggested that these efforts on behalf of American businesses could include “U.S. government advocacy” to “expedite” transactions, which sounds like it might involve a little arm-twisting if African officials question the terms of a deal.
Helping African countries improve the investment climate, which is Prosper Africa’s third strand, and connecting American investors to opportunities on the continent, are worthy—and indeed longstanding—goals. Overall, however, the initiative appears to be a mix of existing programs in shiny new packaging, and with little new money. The $50 million proposed budget for Prosper Africa is a drop in the bucket compared to the administration’s proposed 9 percent cut in overall aid to Africa. And efforts to negotiate bilateral trade agreements country by country would undermine the regional integration that is needed for the continent’s development.
Trade and aid to support development in Africa can and should be to the mutual interest of all involved. But putting Prosper Africa in the context of the geopolitical rivalry with China, alongside Trump’s belligerent America First rhetoric, undermines that positive message.
*Kimberly Ann Elliott is a visiting scholar at the George Washington University Institute for International Economic Policy, and a visiting fellow with the Center for Global Development. Her WPR column appears every Tuesday.