John Bolton’s power play in Africa

Africa, for Donald Trump and his National Security Advisor John Bolton, is a place to risk a little and chase some glory. US media just parrots it.

Image credit Gage Skidmore.

When John Bolton, National Security Adviser to President Donald Trump, unveiled a new program for American investment in Africa, he was quick to describe it as a “counter” to Chinese and Russian ambitions on the continent. If Bolton’s intent was to give a jolt of appeal to a somewhat predictable round of upgrades for some existing government programs, he certainly succeeded. Even before the official announcement, at Heritage Foundation, NBC News reported the Trump White House would unveil a new strategy, with designs on “countering China’s growing influence on the continent, as well as Russia’s attempts to gain footholds in resource-rich, unstable countries.” But when the official announcement came, the feature was much weaker than the promise. A fact sheet—so far, the only document the White House has released on the new strategy—mentions China only once.

Not that a lack of overt references to great-power rivalry would deter Bolton.

For those not following the crazy wing of the Republican Party over the last twenty years, Bolton is a longstanding foreign policy gadfly known for framing every bit of international news as either a challenge to American preeminence or an expression of it. Though he had been resolutely ignored by most of the mainstream of foreign policy thinkers since the Bush years, he had taken on a status of semi-consequence with the Trump ascendency. The Africa policy matter was one of his first major announcements, and true to form, he managed to make it all about grand geopolitical rivalry.

“Great power competitors, namely China and Russia, are rapidly expanding their financial and political influence across Africa,” he said at the unveiling. The reason for all of this gamesmanship, apparently, was “to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.” Once more, American media bought the line wholesale.

“Bolton Outlines a Strategy for Africa That’s Really About Countering China,” screeched a New York Times headline. (The Times helpfully added that “experts welcomed the focus on Africa,” and quoted some.) With a dash of context, The Atlantic offered an equally overblown headline on the new policy: “Africa Is the New Front in the U.S.-China Influence War.”

So what is in the new policy? The only part the White House fact sheet directly ties to China concerns “promoting prosperity.” President Trump, we are told, will use the African Growth and Opportunity Act—a policy which has been on the books since 2000—“to promote deeper trade ties” between the US and Africa. The fact sheet also mentions a forthcoming “Prosper Africa” initiative, but the description is vague. The new initiative will “support open markets for American businesses” and “improve the business climate,” it says. More details on all of this will probably come later, but if the synopsis is any indication, Washington will not be drastically reshaping its approach to Africa just yet.

What the new program likely will do is lend a hand to American companies who want to invest in Africa but have trouble justifying the added cost of taking on a risky investment to their own shareholders. One might argue that such a program could also be an attempt at geo-political gamesmanship: China has found allies in African capitals by building roads, bridges, dams, and soccer stadiums, now the US government will come bearing gifts in the form of American private sector investment. But helping American businesses—often by lending them money, or lobbying African governments on their behalf—has been one of the central components of US aid to Africa for decades. The Trump policy is likely to only upgrade the old one approach, if it will even do that.

But maybe details like these do not matter to Bolton or other nationalists in Washington who want every new policy to assert American hegemony, or at least American greatness. For this crowd, the policy often matters less than the rhetoric justifying it.

In the 1970s, the French diplomat Louis de Guiringaud called Africa “the only continent which is a possible field of action for France, the only one where, with 500 soldiers, she can still change the course of history.” In Bolton’s worldview, the United States has its back against the wall fighting a nefarious Chinese onslaught, and Africa fills a similar role: a place to risk a little and chase some glory. Whether America’s aid does more or less than it has in the last twenty years matters less than whether it can be justified as an assertion of American power. This is a bad vision, and American media could do better than take it seriously.

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