The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) has released a serious study by John Stremlau of the African response thus far to the presidency of Donald Trump. Stremlau, an American, is a SAIIA fellow and a visiting professor at the prestigious University of the Witswatersrand (“Wits”) in Johannesburg. He served for years as the vice president for peace programs at the Carter Center in Atlanta (a non-governmental organization established by former President Jimmy Carter). Though he now lives in Johannesburg, Stremlau is looking at the Trump presidency from the perspective of a ‘Democrat’ in the United States and of a ‘democrat’ in Africa, working for democracy and the rule of law. He is well placed to understand the political dynamics both in the United States and in Africa. That he has a clear perspective does not invalidate what he is saying. The study, more than forty pages in length, is as much about the U.S. president and his administration as it is about Africa. It is a thoughtful and devastating critique.
The report contains in one place a great deal of information, ranging from the impact of proposed budget cuts at the State Department on Africa to cataloguing public statements about Africa made by the president (almost none), the secretary of state (also almost none), and Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN (a significant number). He also shows how remarkably little interaction there has been between the president and the secretary of state and African leaders.
Drawing on polling data from the Pew Research Center, Stremlau charts the dramatic decline in African confidence in the U.S. president “doing the right thing,” country by country. For Africans, the president’s economic nationalism, hostility to multilateralism, rejection of the Paris accords on climate change, and what many Africans see as discomfort with democratic values, make him an unattractive, even hostile, figure. Stremlau also identifies characteristics of the Trump administration as seen by its critics that will give aid and comfort to the dwindling number of African “big men,” including “the political art of lying,” “opinion over fact,” and “crony capitalism.”
Stremlau also talks about the elephant in the living room: the racism of many of the president’s supporters, and the views of many Africans that the president himself is racist. The latter point is longstanding: it dates from the negative African reaction to the president’s view that former President Obama was born in Africa and therefore not qualified to be president of the United States. (Stremlau notes the enduring popularity of President George W. Bush and Barack Obama in Africa.) The study sees the Trump administration as having silver linings for African countries, including incentive to greater self-reliance and to building stronger relationships with non-African countries. He also considers that assaults can often strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law.
For those Americans concerned with advancing the U.S. relationship with Africa, Stremlau’s study shows where we are now and provides a benchmark for going forward. SAIIR has done a service by making the study available to a wide audience.