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.
After the 9/11 attacks, American security policy in Africa shifted almost entirely to counterterrorism. Once again, Washington was willing to overlook undemocratic practices so long as African governments promoted stability and opposed violent jihadism. Believing that economic growth could undercut the resentment and anger that radical jihadists exploited, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama also implemented modest U.S. assistance programs.
Despite that, violent jihadism grew deeper roots in the weakly governed northern half of the African continent, from Mali to Libya, and has even established a foothold in the southeast, in Mozambique. Boko Haram, a Nigerian movement that, like many African extremist groups, spread to neighboring nations, has proven devilishly difficult to eradicate. The same holds for al-Shabab, which is based in Somalia but also threatens Kenya and other nearby states. And across the region of Africa known as the Sahel, which lies between the Sahara desert to the north and the savannah belt of the continent to the south, a patchwork of extremists—part revolutionary jihadists, part heavily armed criminal gangs—destabilizes governments and preys on local populations.
Greater Chinese and Russian involvement in Africa, whether economic or in the security sector, will not endanger U.S. national interests.
Today, the way forward isn’t clear. For decades, the United States considered aid for African security a long-term investment in the continent’s political and economic potential, but Trump sees things differently. Given Africa’s limited current economic importance to the United States, he seems satisfied to sustain some small military training missionsand keep the jihadists on their heels with drone attacks, even while withdrawing many of the U.S. special operations forces that had been supporting African counterterrorism operations since 9/11.
While Obama was often criticized for downsizing America’s security commitments around the world, there has been little mention of Trump’s move to ignore Africa, outside the very small community of regional experts. While China, with its growing need for markets and raw materials, has greatly expanded its economic presence on the continent and undertaken a greater security role, the Trump administration shows little concern. Even Russia’s return to Africa, including to former Soviet-aligned states like Angola, has raised few eyebrows in Washington. For Trump, limited trade means limited interest.
Ultimately, though, Trump’s disengagement from Africa may be the right move. Greater Chinese and Russian involvement there, whether economic or in the security sector, will not endanger U.S. national interests. African leaders aren’t worried at all about great-power competition, so they won’t refuse to sell resources for political reasons. African jihadists, while cancerous, cannot create a state that might provide sanctuary for transnational terrorism, particularly while hiding from American drones and air strikes. Meanwhile, African security services have become much more effective. And while the inability of many African countries to generate enough jobs to employ their rapidly expanding populations generates serious migration problems for Europe, there is little the United States can do about it.
The continent has far to go to fully reach its immense potential and, from South Africa to Algeria, still suffers from corruption, sectarian conflict, uneven economic growth and the devastating effects of climate change. But it has made great strides in recent years, economically and politically. Security is fragile in many African nations, but getting better in others. Most Africans would welcome increased U.S. economic assistance, but not more active American involvement in their own affairs.
So yes, Trump seems to be largely writing the continent off. But ultimately it may not matter to either the United States or Africa, as each charts its own way into the future.