Trump Seems to Be Writing Off African Security, but Will It Matter to the U.S.?

Trump Seems to Be Writing Off African Security, but Will It Matter to the U.S.?
A U.S. and Niger flag are raised side by side at the base camp for air forces and other personnel supporting the construction of Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger, April 16, 2018 (AP photo by Carley Petesch).

It is often hard to figure out precisely what President Donald Trump’s security strategy is. He seldom talks about U.S. national interests and priorities other than trade. His broad regional policies are vague or missing altogether. This is particularly true for Africa. Nearly halfway through his term, Trump has made no speeches on Africa, has not visited the continent, and was slow to appoint an assistant secretary of state for African affairs, America’s key policy coordinator for that part of the world. All this suggests that after 50 years of modest involvement in African security, the United States may be writing the continent off.

Africa has always been at the fringe of American global strategy. The United States came late to the region, only showing an interest when the European colonial empires began crumbling in the 1960s and 1970s. Even then, Washington’s motives were mostly to check the Soviet Union and China. The fear was that if communism dominated the continent, it might starve the West of Africa’s raw materials, particularly vital minerals like cobalt, manganese and platinum. However preposterous this idea looks in hindsight, many American political leaders bought it and set the United States on a course where all that mattered was that African governments were relatively stable and anti-communist or, at least, non-aligned. Being autocratic or pathologically corrupt was not an impediment to cordial ties with Washington.

The collapse of the Soviet Union initially left the United States without a central purpose in Africa. Washington did welcome the subsequent movement toward democracy and responsive government on the continent, providing some support. But the seminal events for American policy in Africa during the 1990s were humanitarian disasters generated by African conflicts, particularly in Somalia and Rwanda. While neither Americans nor Africans wanted large numbers of U.S. troops on the continent, the United States developed a number of training and educational programs to help African militaries and governments build their own capability for crisis management, conflict resolution and peacekeeping. The hope was that Africans themselves could prevent or manage future humanitarian disasters.

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