Final days coming to choose the next American leader. Millions and Millions of America careens through the final stretch leading to the November 8 United States presidential election, it is easy to assume that a Hillary Clinton presidency will do little to change current US policies towards Zambia and Africa. It is equally easy to imagine that a President Donald Trump will tear up the rulebook.
The African continent has barely if not never been mentioned by either candidate during the campaign time. Whoever wins will have many other priorities and will not spend much time developing commercial ties with Africa.
Even so, the next president will have to make choices on trade, aid and security that will affect millions of lives across the region. There is certainly more scope for drastic – and perhaps destructive – change under Trump, the renegade Republican candidate.
In practice, the differences between the candidates on Africa policy are probably smaller than they appear.
Preferential trade arrangements face an uncertain future
The president decides which countries receive duty-free and quota-free access to the US market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). African leaders will be reassured by Clinton’s frequent praise for the legislation, and concerned by Trump’s pledge to scrap trade deals that hurt American manufacturers.
Unlike NAFTA or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, AGOA has not been a campaign issue, and Trump would gain little by removing trade benefits from all African countries. Since most African exports to the US are either natural resources or low-value goods, lobby groups rarely argue that AGOA has hit American jobs.
When such pressure does arise, as it did last year when the US poultry industry accused South Africa of unfairly imposing duties on American chicken, Trump would certainly be more likely than Clinton to take an aggressive stance. Yet Clinton would also have to respond to concerns over American jobs, and may well follow President Obama in using the threat of withdrawing AGOA benefits as a negotiating tactic.
Trump is more likely to slash aid
Clinton often emphasises the ‘soft power’ value of aid. US aid to Africa might fluctuate a little during her presidency, new measures on transparency would probably be introduced, but a fundamental shift in approach is hard to foresee. On the other hand, cuts to the $7.1bn package that the US plans to deliver to Africa next year would chime with Trump’s populist rhetoric.
Trump has claimed that “every penny” donated to Africa is “stolen”, and in 2014 he criticised Obama for helping fight Ebola. But he has since acknowledged that aid can stabilise vulnerable countries, and has promised to “lead the way” in Aids relief. So there are some grounds for hope that Trump would not make extreme cuts, even if aid spending is almost certain to fall.
Security the biggest ‘unknown unknown’
There have been no truly large-scale American military interventions south of the Sahara since the disaster of Somalia in 1993. It is inconceivable that this will change under Trump, who is highly critical of nation-building.
Clinton recognises the diplomatic benefits of providing security assistance, having helped establish the mission to hunt Lord’s Resistance Army fighters in Central Africa.
Yet there is a limit to how far she would go in responding to a crisis, such as renewed civil war in Democratic Republic of Congo precipitated by President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down. Amid domestic opposition in the US, she would be almost as unlikely as Trump to commit to peace enforcement on the continent.
The major difference in how the candidates tackle Isis-allied groups in the Sahel and the Horn may well be in how much bravado they display. But there is a decent chance that Trump’s desire to flaunt his toughness in combatting terrorists would have dangerous consequences for Africa. In particular, his proposal to ban immigration from countries affected by terrorism threatens to exclude African migrants from the US jobs market.
Continuity is not guaranteed, even under Clinton
Clinton is clearly more able to make informed judgements than Trump on the trade, aid and security issues that affect Africa. She visited 24 African countries as secretary of state.
In contrast, Trump’s engagement with the continent is limited to a handful of posts on Twitter. And Clinton’s diplomatic experience will help her forge bonds with African leaders, whereas Trump’s habit of making racially insensitive comments will surely be a hindrance.
Whether this actually translates into major policy differences is harder to judge. It is likely that Trump will be restrained – to some extent – by career officials in the State Department from implementing radical changes to US Africa policy. Even if he is genuinely determined to cut aid and rewrite trade relations, other more pressing priorities are likely to get in the way.
If Clinton wins, aid will continue to flow, African presidents will still be invited to Washington, and the US will carry on providing security assistance. But she will also face constraints. The cry of ‘America first’ may not be quite loud enough to put Trump in the White House – but the pressures of domestic politics will affect the choices a President Clinton makes on Africa.