TRUMPIAN CHAOS IN US FOREIGN POLICY: For Africa, Does it Matter? By Francis A. Kornegay, Jr.

The most well-known quote of Italian left-wing political theorist Antonio Gramsci goes, "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appears." The words have been applied and misapplied to many situations and periods of history. But it remains an interesting insight, rooted in the idea that there is a kind of twilight period in the process of social or political change during which the normal rules and conventions seem to bounce around without logic.


America has reached an historically critical inflection point of conjuncture in foreign policy and domestic politics, both interlinked. In spite of the everyday TV Reality Show-like absurdity of President Donald Trump and his improbable presidency, a few things are worth noting:

  1. Trump is morbidly symptomatic of much deeper social, political and economic contradictions and crisis afflicting post-cold war America with uncertain global order implications.
  2. Trump’s election was a fluke in terms of it having been far from a forgone conclusion that he was going to win an election that was Hillary Clinton’s to lose so that the outcome of 2016 was not so much that a majority of the electorate voted for Trump as much as the fact that the electorate did not provide the winning margin for Hillary in the Electoral College – Trump was elected by the Electoral College while Clinton won the popular vote by between 2-3 million votes.
  3. Yet, the fact that Trump won the Electoral College in what constitutes a minority presidency without a real mandate is far from a fluke in terms of what his election exposes in historical constitutional flaws in the US democratic system, flaws embedded in the very slave-based constitutional foundations of the Republic reinforced by Civil War legacies never successfully confronted since the overthrow of Black Reconstruction in the mid-1870s leading to Southern Regional Autonomy.

America, thus, faces, in this Trump Moment, a crisis in national identity and integration of national security proportions.

Transitional instability at home & abroad

Eight years of Barack Hussein Obama lulled everyone into complacency, ignoring enduring issues of race, class, culture and regionalism; this was without appreciating the magnitude of the racist right wing populist backlash unleashed by Obama’s historic election which Trump exploited at the expense of what was once a stable two-party system, now fragmented into an unprecedented degree of polarization and instability with internal tensions in both parties impacting, in turn, on a much needed post-imperial American foreign policy transition.

The de-industrializing aftershocks of how the west-to-east transition in the global economy’s center of gravity (starting first with Japanese ascendancy in the late 1960s and throughout the 70’s) and its marginalizing impact on working class ‘middle America’ via manufacturing sector shrinkage has, at least in part, eroded socio-political basis of domestic as well as foreign policy consensus.

The US no longer enjoys consensual bipartisanship in foreign policy. But this long predates Donald Trump.

However, coming from the hard line, belligerently isolationist right, Trump – devoid of any commitment to policy of any kind or necessities of diplomacy apart from a neo-Hobbesian re-emphasizing of sovereignty that his national security tutors try to articulate into some semblance of logic, reflecting his impulses – has gone up against the entire foreign policy establishment: from liberal internationalists and neoconservatives to conservative libertarian as well as left-leaning anti-interventionists and realists across the partisan spectrum.

The upshot: polarizing division between ‘globalists’ and ‘nationalists’ according to the dictates of former Trump White House advisor, Steve Bannon.  

So what was already unfolding as a protracted transition underway in US foreign policy, diplomacy and national security strategy that began accelerating (after the disastrous second Bush administration) under Obama’s initiatives, such as the Iran nuclear deal opposed by Israel, Saudi Arabia and their lobbies, normalizing relations with Cuba and the trans-Pacific/Atlantic trade diplomacies, mutated into outright chaos and instability under Trump. He operates on the prejudiced impulse, transactional opportunism and racist inclinations to undo whatever Obama achieved or had started.

Whereas Obama was motivated by strategic intent, Trump is devoid of such motivations.    

As such, American leadership is far from Trump’s concern. This, in fact, offers a ‘silver lining’ of an opportunity for those of a more centrist, center-right or left-liberal progressive or realist bent to think outside the box about future US foreign policy direction, interacting with increasingly urgent demands on the domestic front – which, in turn, ultimately impacts the foreign policy front.

Implications for Africa

What does all this have to do with Africa? And do these ructions in US foreign policy even matter to Africa? The long and the short of it is a qualified ‘not much’ from an American perspective though not necessarily from African vantage points.

Qualified, because the recent incident of 4 Americans killed in Niger, raises for Americans an entire range of questions currently concentrating minds in Congress about what exactly the US is up to in a part of the world everyone in Washington prefers to ignore – and more fundamentally, Washington’s seemingly permanent global war footing with Africa emerging as a major counter-terrorism battlefield. Equally important, on the African side, it raises major questions in need of African answers about whether and how the continent will ever muster the political will to gain control over its own security.

Indeed, as just about everyone, the world over, these days is looking inward, preoccupied with their own problems, it might do Africa well if Africans, instead of being distracted by Trump, focused on Africa’s policy toward Africa and how the continent is going to take the initiative instead of reacting and responding to external others who engage Africa with their own strategic agendas, taking advantage of Africa’s colonially-imposed fragmentation in pursuing their national interests (a point that some, during the oral presentation, misinterpreted as Africa going-it-alone and whether the continent, left to its own devises, would ever have the capacity to take control of its own destiny when, in fact, the realities of global interdependencies would not leave Africa alone in confronting its challenges; instead,  the point being, there was need for African agency as opposed to Africa reacting to initiatives of engagement from non-African external powers setting bilateral agendas with individual African states).

The prevailing paradigm: the ‘one and the many’; the one external power and the many so-called African state sovereignties, an Afro-Westphalianism the continent can ill afford at the expense of pan-African solutions. The fact of the matter is that ever since the end of apartheid and the manner in which Congress basically took policy toward apartheid South Africa away from the Reagan administration, there evolved an essentially bipartisan Africa policy with continuity and stability largely devoid of major controversy.

Refocusing Africa policy

Niger notwithstanding, this is not likely to change under Trump. There is a need to refocus Africa policy toward prioritizing more clearly the institutional and governance strengthening of regional economic communities. This would have to include resolving issues across Africa’s northern tier (from Western Sahara to the Horn of Africa) to advance regional and continental integration in line with Kagame Report recommendations on AU reform. This is where African agency should focus and serve as a basis for proactively shaping external agendas toward Africa instead of the other way around. 

Otherwise, the programmatic content of US-Africa policy is pretty much set. It is not likely to change; that is, unless Africa assumes initiative in influencing where it wants US policy to go while rebuilding the US-African affairs constituency to suit the AU 2063 agenda – and the UN International Decade of Peoples of African Descent. Given the fact that other countries through their lobbies seek to influence US policies toward their countries and regions of the world, there is no reason why the AU can’t follow suit. 

Regarding what looms as a growing US focus on Africa as a major counter-terrorism battleground in the wake of Niger, the AU may need to consider a greater role for the UN in a joint strategy of coordinating US and other external interventions in investing greater resources in beefing up African peace and security capacity. This would seem to call for capacitating the AU and its RECs in recruiting, training and regimenting a multi-dimensional force structure that, over time, assumes greater control in stabilizing Africa’s security environment. 

Here, the following observation is instructive in a recent analysis by former army officers and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan respectively, Phillip Carter and Andrew Swick: “…the US has struggled to build local capacity to fight terrorism, in part because of the difficulty of the task and the relatively meager resources allocated (tens of millions of dollars, compared to the billions spent in places like Afghanistan and Syria).” (italics added)  

In order of magnitude, African security demands long-term multilateral commitment under joint AU-UN (Security Council) direction and oversight. Otherwise, with budget debates over how much is allocated to Africa and controversies over State Department downsizing, little if any change can be expected under Trump, especially since Obama failed to do anything for Trump to reverse – Obama reversal being, in essence, Trump’s impulse on everything, foreign and domestic.

Pluralism or Liberalism: At home & abroad

More important, with implications for Africa, is where US foreign policy is headed overall. Given the interplay and interconnectivity between global economic integration and the increasing multipolar diffusion of power, the postwar – including post-cold war – era of Liberal Internationalism is in urgent need of major revamp into what might call for fashioning a multi-partnership diplomacy and national security strategy of Pluralist Internationalism. This amended frame of internationalist terms of engagement would be informed by a realism recognizing that there is such a thing as Regional Spheres of Influence, at the very least, Spheres of Interests that should be respected in transitioning to a UN-centric rather than an Americo-centric world order (the UN after all, in any case, being an American creation). Such a system would allow for macro-regional federalism in global economic governance within a multipolar geopolitical strategic landscape.

In Samuel Huntington’s conceptualization of the world’s uni-multipolar (rather than ‘unipolar’) reality, Pluralist Internationalism would recognize and accommodate the existence of multiple centers of regional power operating in accordance with their own geopolitical, economic and cultural terms of reference and agendas rather than in accordance with a no longer globally hegemonic liberalism. Such an amended internationalism would place universalist-diversity emphasis on the principle of Democratic Cultural Pluralism where all societies, the world-over strive to achieve their own path toward humanity’s ‘unity in diversity’ within one country, region and/or continental space. 

Such a live-and-let-live tolerance should moderate preoccupations with interventionist western-style procedural democratization. Indeed, as far as US foreign policy is concerned, from an African-American perspective, America’s historical and contemporary democracy deficits rule out the US arrogating to itself moral and political ‘high ground’ from which to dictate democratic and electoral values, norms and standards; that is, pending constitutional changes in the American electoral system and terms of representative democracy that overcome America’s historical and contemporary deficits. Even then, dictating a presumed liberal democratic universalism seems questionable.

Such an evolution toward a pluralist internationalism still assumes expectations of American leadership, though Trump’s retreat in this regard could portend the republic’s accelerated relative decline. Otherwise, continuity in US leadership might well feature a transitioning from American global primacy toward a posture emphasizing strategic equilibrium, devolution and power-sharing in the sharing of burdens and responsibilities. 

Such a recasting of America’s posture would allow for resuming Obama’s Nation-Building At Home rather than Trump’s race-based nationalistic America First agenda, focusing on US domestic renewal and a much needed radical reformist politics of constitutional change to transform America from a largely white rural, small-town, up-state shrinking demographic into a more urban-centered multicultural minority-majoritarian nonracial democracy. Hence, linkage between America’s domestic and foreign policy future as changes underway globally mirror changes underway in America – The Trump Moment notwithstanding.

SA between Moscow & Washington?

Finally, how does this all affect a South Africa going through its own governance crisis? This is because it is not clear where South Africa, going forward, will fit within the unpredictably unfolding drama of the Trump Moment. To be sure, ever since the country joined Brazil-Russia-India-China in BRICS, the internal dynamics within the domestic politics of South Africa’s governing party has come, more or less, to reflect a low-intensity pro-western versus anti-western contention between rival alignments not reflected in other members of BRICS, except for Russia, especially within its IBSA subgroup comprising India and Brazil. 

These dynamics appear, currently to intrude into the power-struggle over a post-Jacob Zuma presidency. They may carry implications for South Africa-Russian relations on the one hand, South Africa’s relations with western capital on the other – part of a wider global geopolitical-economic dynamic between liberal internationalist (not to be confused with democratic) and authoritarian capitalist camps within the west-to-east shifting center of gravity in the global economy. Placed in this context, a question may arise as to what South Africa’s BRICS agenda is really all about as it takes over the bloc’s chairmanship in 2018: whether it is more narrowly transactional or more broadly geostrategic in terms of a wider African continental-global South agenda? This is in as much as the rest of Africa does not align clearly within either capitalist camp along  bipolar western/anti-western lines. 

How, or even if, these contradictions begin to sort out in December is anyone’s guess. Interestingly enough, had the type of US-Russian rapprochement expected early on in the Trump administration come to fruition, such a development might have resolved the ruling party’s internal anti-US/west versus pro-west contradictions. However, as these prospects are on the back-foot amid investigations into possible Trump campaign-Russian, these tensions remain in play, raising the question as to whether South Africa should not strive to craft an independently multi-vectored foreign policy that is pragmatically executed as is the case with other members of BRICS. Should the nature US-South African relations be dictated by the nature of US-Russian relations? This is an open question, the answer of which may not be forthcoming until South Africa has finished its current electoral cycle ending in 2019.    

(This article will be part of a collection of presentations that have been jointly organized by the Concerned African Scholars chaired b y former SA deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad and University of Johannesburg's National Research Foundation Chair of African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, Professor Chris Landsberg.)