Like many, I didn’t think it could be true. President Donald J Trump just seemed so implausible given the many profoundly concerning revelations about the Republican Party nominee’s personal views on women, the state, migration and migrants, Muslims, and even taxes. How, in 2016, could an individual who thinks it’s okay to grope women, build a wall to keep migrants out, ban Muslims, call Mexicans rapists, and brag about avoiding taxes be at all appealing to the American electorate?
Well, that implausibility has become the new reality. The world will be ruminating over this for some time to come.
I won’t lie, I am profoundly concerned about the implications of Trump’s election for international affairs, and particularly for American foreign policy in Africa. Here is why.
An inward looking US
A key strategy for President-elect Trump is to turn the US inward, both economically and politically. Many of his economic policies reflect a mercantilist perspective on economic development. This can be summed up as being the opposite to free trade.
Trump is on record opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal and wishes to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to improve the context for American business. One can only assume that such logic will persist and extend into areas like the African Growth and Opportunities Act. This gives certain African exports preferential access to the American market. If this agreement is cancelled, African producers will lose tariff free access to an important market to sell their goods – likely leading to job losses and economic decline.
Other signs of the turn inward can be seen in his desire to focus on domestic infrastructure projects as a means of growing the American economy rather than on international cooperation agreements with other states.
Love it or hate it, American financial capital is important to African development. In 2015 alone US $14 billion poured in. Having less investment coming to African states does not spell good news regardless of how much some believe China pitches in.
Further, unlike the Obama administration which believed that it maintained a degree of responsibility for assisting development in other states, Trump has given no indication that he or anyone within his inner circle holds similar views. With the economic turn inwards and the focusing of American resources on its narrowly defined “self-interest”, I hazard to guess that US development assistance will also be affected.
To gain votes President-elect Trump sought to use immigration and migrants, particularly Muslims and Latinos, as a wedge to reinforce stereotypes and normalise prejudice. For a continent beset by the legacies of stereotypes and prejudice, this can hardly be a good sign of things to come for Africa in terms of its relations with the US.
We know that in contexts where people turn away from each other and seek to marginalise difference politically and economically, extremism and hatred emerge. This will do little to stem radicalism on the continent and the growing disquiet in race, ethnic, and religious relations between countries.
The threat to international security
International security and conflict under a Trump administration is probably the most worrying facet of his election. In international relations speak, Trump is what we call a “hawk”. This is someone who seeks to use power to dominate and coerce others into doing their bidding.
Here is a man who believes the world needs more nuclear weapons rather than fewer. He’s antagonistic towards China and Iran, and believes the use of force is the best way to solve conflict.
We can expect an American foreign policy to be dominated even more by questions of security than it is now. And, I fear, the use of force will be far more readily considered and employed that it seems to have been for the last eight years.
The implications of this for Africa are real as a number of states continue to deal with civil or insurgency conflict. How the US under a Trump administration will engage in conflict is a big and concerning question.
Collective action will be difficult
Overall, the election of Trump spells a difficult road ahead for global cooperation around important collective issues, like climate change. Trump believes that climate change is a Chinese invention and has committed to cancelling the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
In a moment where the international community needs to be coming together to solve collective problems, President-elect Trump appears more interested in taking the US on its own path. After eight years of this under George W. Bush, we know what the consequences will be. Deferring action on climate change will have disastrous consequences for states battling related problems like drought, extreme weather events and rising sea levels.
Sadly, African states will suffer in this context of decreased global cooperation and appreciation for the common but differentiated responsibility that developed countries, like the US, maintain. In a new era of crass power politics, African states will only be marginalised further from western dominated decision-making.
What’s the positive coming from this moment for Africa? Not much – other than that the checks and balances within the American political system will not give Trump a blank cheque to do with as he pleases. This is true even though Republicans remain dominant in the country’s other legislative branches.
Sadly, I foresee a global order emerging that will be less about cooperation and more defined by division.