With the president returning from one of the most embarrassing public displays of American diplomacy abroad, at least we can say one thing: We know where President Donald Trump stands with respect to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and in Europe. For bad or for worse.
We even get a firm sense of where the administration’s head might be on matters involving North Korea, China and emerging economies such as India. Dictators of distant, up-and-coming totalitarian regimes like Turkey, Egypt and the Philippines get full red-carpet visits and blown-kiss invitations to Washington, D.C. (and, if you’re that lucky despot, you get to stomp a few American citizens in the head on U.S. soil for a limited time only!).
And just as the Trump-Russia scandal continues to metastasize beyond the unfathomable boundaries of the president’s big head, the U.S. military still deploys troops to counter Russia. Recent bursts of geopolitical soapboxing show up, as if Trump cares, in the crafting of a peace deal between warring Russia and the Ukraine.
But we have no idea where the Trump administration stands on the second-largest continent on the planet in population and size: Africa.
That’s tragic, since 14 percent (pdf) of the U.S. population has direct cultural, genetic and spiritual ties to the continent. But if you’re lazily expecting a tweet from the president on anything African, forget about that. And it’s not likely that the mainstream reporters who do get a chance to interview him will ask, “Hey, so what about that massive land mass with all the black people in it that even China keeps poking around for oil in?” Even the one black network anchor, Lester Holt, who did snag a Trump interview didn’t mention it.
At the top, why the surprise, right? Generally speaking, the president and his minions don’t hold black people in much high regard—so why expect anything different on the topic of their ancestral homeland?
And the African continent—like Australia, much of Central America and Western Europe—is one of those places that don’t currently house a Trump-branded hotel, resort or golf course. Trump puts personal bandwidth into places where he’s got direct business interests … or where a country will allow it. The map of his business ties, in many ways, vividly reflects his foreign policy (whom he likes vs. whom he doesn’t like).
Although Egypt takes up a northeastern corner of the continent, the Trump administration’s cozy relationship with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi doesn’t really count, since that’s all Arab-world interaction. There’s just no public indication of what the president thinks of or wants to do about black Africa, given its size and consequence.
For the most part, as the New Yorker’s Alexis Okeowo points out, we can only glean from recent budget cuts that his lack of sophisticated perception of the diverse, multicountry continent is informing his foreign aid—which he’s set to decimate by shutting down the U.S. African Development Foundation.
The really peculiar thing about that level of willful ignorance is how the administration casually talks around African issues and problems, even when the president is in close geographic or rhetorical proximity to them. Saudi Arabia, which the president just visited, is a boat ride across the Red Sea from an East Africa region where 16 million people are trapped in a destabilizing food crisis.
Elsewhere, POTUS likes to brag about how he’ll wipe out ISIS, but the administration—with its oil-executive secretary of state—seems annoyed by U.S. involvement in the fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria, the largest, fastest-growing and most deadly ISIS chapter outside of Syria. But maybe it all depends on how the Obama administration treated it, since a spiteful Trump’s existence is based on doing the opposite of what the first black president did: Upon recognizing former President Barack Obama’s resistance toward selling sophisticated weapons to a porous Nigerian military (out of fear that Boko militants would easily steal them), Trump happily turned around and sold the large West African nation $600 million worth of light attack aircraft.
The Trump administration’s attitudes toward Africa range from irritation to outright animus. While direct references to Africa are absent, one could easily see an emerging anti-Africa doctrine from Trump’s open hostility toward the United Nations, an organization that dedicates most of its global peacekeeping operations to zones of conflict on the continent. Still, that doesn’t justify the mix of resentment and dismissiveness shown by the administration toward a place that houses more than 1 billion of the world’s population.
There is a blossoming white supremacist worldview and foreign policy agenda that blesses dictatorships and rivals such as Russia with geopolitical accolades. Nor would we expect Africa to be a priority for closeted white nationalists and senior advisers like Steve Bannon, who are more than happy to craft the continent out of significance. And Trump’s own personal pause on anything African is simply the extension of outright anti-blackness, from building his political empire on a foundation of racist “Birther” conspiracies to actively exacerbating dangerous racial contempt from his white working-class base.
That too many particularly sub-Saharan African countries can’t get their houses in order doesn’t help, either. It’s one reason that Sylvester Okere, a visiting scholar at George Mason University and president of United People for African Congress, is hopeful for a policy reboot.
“This trend offers Africans an opportunity to actually reshape U.S.-African policy towards Africa because the Trump administration is calling for a paradigm shift to reset it,” Okere told The Root. “That means African governments and organizations, also, should come up with areas of emphasis that can influence what policies the Trump administration decides to go with.”
Okere, especially, puts the onus on African governments. “The deplorable state of affairs in Africa today is due to mainstream media and foreign-government lobbyists making it extremely difficult for the American government to see the devastation of ethnic cleansing and marginalization in Nigeria, South Sudan, Congo, Liberia, Gambia, Cameroon and Sierra Leone, just to name a few,” he added. “Nigeria [during the Obama administration] in particular was a complete disaster.”
But it’s not as if the black political and advocacy community back here at home puts any big emphasis on Africa or black-Diaspora policy these days—and maybe everyone else, including Trump, has noticed. To her credit, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) seems to be the only member of Congress fighting that fight, urging the administration to address the brewing famine on the continent. Major social justice movements like Black Lives Matter didn’t strategically connect with movements elsewhere throughout the Diaspora that are dealing with similar issues; nor was there a Pan-African blueprint for U.S. activists to model in recent years.
“We already know that there are current things in this Trump budget, such as the talk about cutting humanitarian aid,” said Stanley Straughter, a Philadelphia-area business owner who is facilitating an African Business Roundtable discussion in the city next week, during an episode of this author’s public affairs program, Reality Check, on WURD in Philadelphia. “And, interestingly enough, we’re pleased that at least the administration will continue to support the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. So it’s a mixed bag.”
But Straughter is looking for more diasporic mobilization from black communities worldwide. “The need for us to understand that we must have an Afrocentric worldview on these issues is absolutely crucial.”