Later this week Donald Trump will be inaugurated as president of the US. There has been much speculation about his foreign policy position, assuming oil industry boss, Rex Tillerson, is confirmed as Secretary of State. An ‘America first’ position will certainly mean a more inward-looking stance, focusing on domestic concerns. Globalisation and compassionate, liberal internationalism will not be on the agenda. The aid agency, USAID, will probably look very different, and preferential trade arrangements, such as under AGOA, will be given short shrift. Gone will be the spreading of ‘good governance’, democracy, the ‘rule of law’ and food security; instead support for US business interests will dominate (although these of course were hardly absent before).
Some have argued that the Trump presidency will see the end of the idea of ‘the West’ – that great post-war alliance of political, commercial and military interests, generated under globalised neoliberal policies, that have helped forge multilateral institutions, trade pacts and environmental/social policy agreements.
Is this all under threat? Somehow I doubt it. No matter the undoubted power of the US presidency there are plenty of other forces at play that will see such alliances hold, even if transformed in their objectives, membership and support. But what is certain is that geopolitics will look different.
At a time when the prospects for the old world order look threatened, and many fear the consequences for global trade, peace and stability, new arrangements will have to be forged. Already, Trump has alarmed the world with connections with Putin’s Russia, by praise for Pakistan, and by engaging directly with Taiwan, as well as threatening commitments to hard-won agreements on trade and climate change. For sure, the status quo is about to be seriously disrupted.
Opportunities for Africa?
For some this may be a positive thing. The meddling in foreign lands by western powers, led by the US, has often been challenged by those arguing for a new post-colonial order, where aid is not seen as a route to imposing liberal, western values. Instead a greater independence and geopolitical and commercial autonomy may open up new avenues. Of course many in Africa, including Zimbabwe, have been ‘looking east’ for both cash and political support. China as the great competing superpower of the twenty first century has many ambitions in Africa. China sees the long game, and is investing in social, cultural, political and economic capital across Africa. Already the US’ standing in Africa looks different, and this will change again.
Yet there may be opportunities for Africa from a new US stance. Despite the belligerent rhetoric, Trump is clearly a well- practised pragmatist, born of his experiences of building his business empire. Working from instinct, direct personal connections and relations are crucial, and high-flown policy is secondary. In many ways, he is more similar to most African presidents than his predecessors, who also share some of his less than liberal views.
Surrounded by family, senior military officials, and with politics firmly linked to business interests, there are striking, if not always positive, similarities. Trump is associated with a different type of political dynasty, far from the more familiar Clinton and Bush version, perhaps more akin to those seen in Africa, where business and politics mix easily. Such family and business connections may be important for Africa, as suggested below.
As African governments have got used to a different type of relationship with the other major superpower, China, new forms of engagement have emerged, very different way to the standard diplomatic and aid connections of western powers. Business is central, geo-political interests are clear, and deals are struck based on often quite personal connections. Just look at how the late Meles Zinawe and of course President Mugabe cultivated China, often to good effect.
Trump’s inconsistent and rare commentaries on Africa reveal little of his policy position. He has called South Africa ‘a mess’ (but few would argue about that), and has challenged President Museveni of Uganda, arguing that he should be locked up for corruption (well he may have a point too). But overall there is little to be gleaned beyond the usual Twitter-led knee-jerk commentary that has characterised Trump to date.
The Zimbabwe connection: sport hunting and golf?
So what are the implications for Zimbabwe? Robert Mugabe in his usual mischievous style has both backed Trump – as a challenger of western liberal hegemony – and castigated him – arguing that Adolf Hitler must be his grandfather! Trump has said that, along with Museveni, he will personally see that he is imprisoned. Beyond the campaign rhetoric and political posturing, Zimbabwe though has more direct and positive connection with Trump, via his sons. This suggests an interesting set of common interests, arising from a slightly bizarre route.
The new US President’s sons – Eric and Donald Jr., now in charge of the Trump business empire – are very fond of Africa, and indeed in 2010 visited Zimbabwe on a high-end trophy hunting trip organised by an exclusive South African company, Hunting Legends. Their time in Matetsi safari area near Hwange was much enjoyed. During their hunting safari they hunted leopard, elephant, buffalo and waterbuck and more, and paid huge sums in trophy fees, as well as their no doubt luxurious bush accommodation and safari services. A small media storm occurred, with outrage at the horrors of hunting from the usual quarters (check out the photos – you can see why), although it was completely above board.
So perhaps Zimbabwe can make the connection to Trump through his sons and via the promotion of sport hunting? Trump Senior prefers golf (he has his own golf course in Scotland, but I am told some of Zimbabwe’s are world class), but as a route to promoting US business and African development, sport hunting may be a win-win. Personally I don’t like hunting or golf, and many will no doubt object to the idea that hunting can result in development gains, as in the outraged global reaction to the death of Cecil the lion at the hands of a hapless dentist from Minnesota.
Nevertheless, there are good arguments for the sustainable use of wildlife, and trophy revenues are the ones that usually make it economically profitable, as I argued in a blog on Cecil. So perhaps the relevant ministers need to get on a plane to the US, and be the first in the queue to make the case for Zimbabwe as an investment destination.
Last time the Trump brothers came to Zimbabwe they were escorted by a white-owned South African company; perhaps next time they can engage with a community-led business, with more benefits to local people from the significant fees paid. Perhaps the Save Valley Conservancy can get involved, along with their outreach schemes; and maybe the long-lost ‘wildlife-based land reform’ can be revived, with dividends spilling over to support development in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country.
Just as diamonds were the platform for Chinese engagement with Zimbabwe (see next week’s blog), perhaps sport hunting could provide the same starting point for new political relations and joint business ventures with the US; although hopefully – but far from guaranteed – without all the murky corrupt, politics that ensue when investments in valuable resources occur in Africa.
This all may be grasping at straws. I suspect so, as the more serious global challenges are more fundamentally about Trump’s challenge to rights, democracy and the global political order. Certainly, we are about to enter a new era, where old rules don’t apply. Thinking out of the box, and developing a new discourse for African engagement with the US will definitely be necessary; and this must start from Friday.
Further reflections of mine from last year: http://steps-centre.org/2016/blog/trump-and-brexit-whats-the-alternative/