What should one make of the recent announcement by the U.S. president’s national security adviser, John Bolton, outlining a new ‘America First’ policy toward Africa?
If taken at face value, it suggests that the U.S. administration is embarking on a policy that regards the continent as a Cold War playground in which superpowers vie for influence and control, irrespective of the sovereignty of the states concerned. At the same time, it implies that the decades-long U.S. policy neglect of the continent and its cession of engagement to Europe is at an end.
More importantly, it sets out clearly a new U.S. foreign policy model that offers benefits only to those nations that are deemed politically willing to accept its embrace.
Speaking in Washington on December 14 at an event organized by conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, President Trump’s national security adviser set out an approach that sees Africa as a region in which the U.S., in the future, intends on ensuring that it has a competitive advantage over China and Russia.
In his remarks, Bolton said that the new Africa strategy was the result of an intensive interagency process that reflected the core tenets of President Trump’s foreign policy doctrine, which is ‘to put the interests of the American people first, both at home and abroad’.
He framed the new policy not in terms of what might be good for Africa, but in relation to the national security interests of the United States, observing that “every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend will further U.S. priorities in the region”. Future support, he suggested, will be undertaken in ways that advance U.S. trade, counter the threat from radical Islamic terrorism and violent conflict, and ensure that U.S. taxpayer support will be used efficiently and effectively.
He then went on to outline the criteria that the U.S. will use for Africa.
In his outline, Bolton said that U.S. aid will be targeted on key countries and specified strategic objectives. “All U.S. aid”, he told his audience, “will advance U.S. interests, and help African nations move toward self-reliance”, with, as a first objective, improving opportunities for U.S. businesses, safeguarding the economic independence of African states and protecting U.S. national security interests.
The new policy will be designed to address China and Russia’s rapidly expanding financial and political influence in Africa by creating bilaterally negotiated, modern, comprehensive trade agreements that create a “fair and reciprocal exchange” between the U.S. and African nations.
Bolton also said that the U.S. will re-evaluate its support for UN peacekeeping missions; ensure that all aid money spent advances U.S. interests; insist that recipients invest in health and education, have accountable government and fiscal policy; end corruption and promote the rule of law. He also noted that the U.S. will revisit the ideas behind the Marshall Plan – the program that supported the post Second World War recovery in Europe — and end support for countries that repeatedly vote against the U.S. or take actions counter to U.S. interests.
What was striking about his remarks was Bolton’s emphasis on “great power competition”, moving African states toward self-reliance and ending long-term dependency, and the centrality of outcomes that result in America First in all U.S. actions and policies.
Paradoxically, it comes when significant economic progress is being made by many African nations, often with substantial development support from China and without the overt political conditions of the kind that the U.S. is now proposing.
How the multitude of very different nations that make up the African continent will respond has yet to be seen, but the Caribbean can be certain that an almost identical policy for the region is on the way.
It is an approach that is at odds with the development through dialogue approach that Europe takes in Africa and the intentionally opaque, but on the whole politically unconditional interdependent economic partnerships that China pursues. It suggests a desire to rewrite, piece by piece, the global rules of engagement in ways that set aside multilateralism, in favor of a black-and-white world view that requires nations to accept U.S. supremacy.
Read carefully what was said, substitute the word Caribbean for Africa, and it is clear that President Trump’s world view, as reflected by Bolton, is just as likely to be applied in the same way in future to the Caribbean and the Pacific and Indian Ocean, as it is to Africa.
It is likely that, next year, U.S. thinking on its relations with the rest of the hemisphere, including the Caribbean, will also become clear. In one or another way, it is expected that in 2019 Washington will spell out in detail the actions it intends taking against Venezuela and Cuba; its trade policy in the hemisphere; a bigger role for sanctions; and how, practically, it intends to respond to China and possibly Russia’s very different forms of engagement in the Americas.
U.S. political thinking about the Caribbean has until recently been driven largely by perception of the position that individual nations have taken in relation to Venezuela. However, in October U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and then in November, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, both made clear, specifically and generally, that nations’ relations with China were driving U.S. foreign policy.
More recently it has become apparent that the views of Marco Rubio, the Republican U.S. senator, on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, have become central to determining future U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. If adopted, this may see beyond concern about China, the development of transactional policies toward third countries determined, as in Africa, through trade, development assistance and sanctions that discriminate against nations unwilling to comply with U.S. policy.
Changing U.S. policy on Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean poses complex questions for the Caribbean as well as for Europe and the U.S.’ allies who presently work in partnership. Most will welcome the idea of a focus on health and education, accountability, measures to end corruption and the promotion of the rule of law. However, they know well from their shared colonial history what happens when economic benefit and decision-making is dictated by one party to another.
• David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com. Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org. Published with the permission of Caribbean News Now.