“America First” and Implications for US Strategy in the Horn of Africa

By Richard McManamon

Abstract

Since taking office, President Trump has challenged the global order with his “America First” approach. He has questioned the role of the US and its Allies within NATO, exited the Paris Climate Accord, and entered into a trade battle with China. At the same time, the Trump administration has positioned both Russia and China as strategic rivals to the US and the new rise to great power competition. In the last decade, the US has witnessed aggressive actions by both countries in an effort to carve out new spheres of influence.

As the administration takes action to increase America’s competitive edge, President Trump’s foreign policies, specifically to the Horn of Africa, have been inconsistent resulting in a less strategic approach. It would appear as the US switches focus to great power competition, support to Africa decreases. This is not only a lost opportunity for the US to challenge China and Russia indirectly, but more importantly, allows these countries to exploit a gap and gain further influence throughout the region. The Horn of Africa continues to be a nexus for geopolitics and it’s critical that an America First approach does not undermine the US ability to maintain influence in the region.

The unprecedented election of Donald Trump in 2016 precipitated some substantial shifts in global order, especially regarding China and Russia. Russia demonstrated its ability to challenge existing borders and sovereignty by interventions in Ukraine and Georgia, while China has pushed its Belt and Road Initiative further across the globe. As both Russia and China continue such efforts to extend their global presence, it is perceived by some observers that these countries are creating new spheres of influence across the globe.

In thinking of spheres of influence, the Horn of Africa remains a strategic nexus for the US, Europe, and the Middle East due to its location and connection to trade. Following the region’s independence after World War II, many African states such as Somalia have struggled to build institutions that provide consistent essential services and overall security for their population.[1] The vulnerabilities facing the Horn are extensive and complicated, requiring a more comprehensive US strategy to better address the various threats. Compounding existing vulnerabilities, these threats are typically not confined to one state but affect the entire region. The systemic nature of these vulnerabilities is evidenced by repeated instances where one country’s crisis spreads across borders and into neighboring states.

Since 2017 in terms of foreign and security policy, the Trump administration placed a significant focus on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and more recently, the Afghanistan peace talks while Africa has been under prioritized. Minimizing focus on Africa, especially the Horn of Africa, has the potential to present significant challenges for the US into the future. In this article, I argue that one of the prominent reasons for this low prioritization is President Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy. Additionally, the high turnover rate within the Trump administration among senior leaders has remained high and has likely caused significant disruptions in a comprehensive foreign strategy, specifically regarding Africa.

If the United States is to see another four years of the Trump administration, foreign policy changes must be enacted to secure US interests while strengthening the country’s allies, including in the region of the Horn of Africa. Additionally, a rise of great power competition will likely mean the Trump administration will continue to exercise the military as a principal tool in foreign policy. The implications of such action have the potential to undermine global order and push the US toward new conflicts.[2] Moreover, the significant ramifications for continuously expanding the military and using it as a primary tool for diplomacy are that the US ends up with a military-focused strategy that could result in another arms race with Russia. A comprehensive strategy that balances all the instruments of national power is essential to meet the challenges and objectives for the US and would better mitigate the consequences from a military-heavy foreign policy that focuses on the short term at the expense of long-term strategic gains. Trump’s emphasis on the military as the primary tool of foreign policy comes with inherent risks that may conflict with his intentions of reducing US forces abroad. These risks include potentially escalating already volatile conditions with countries such as North Korea and Iran.

America First

The Trump administration has positioned China and Russia as rivals that are challenging the US through political, military, and economic means.[3] In doing so, Trump has taken action to combat these perceived threats through executive orders, sanctions, and tariffs to increase America’s competitive edge. Additionally, the Trump administration renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 2020, placed tariffs against China, exited the Paris Climate Accord in 2019, and left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018.

Thus far, the Trump administration has taken broad action concerning long-standing agreements to make the US more competitive both domestically and internationally. Furthermore, Trump has publicly questioned the utility for the US regarding multilateralism.[4] Since taking office, President Trump has targeted NATO and challenged the organization’s policies and procedures. During his visit to Brussels in 2018, he stated that he believed European countries were taking advantage of US military resources and not paying their fair share.[5] This aggressive approach toward allies can draw significant media attention and other consequences, and I argue it damages the US’s reputation and its international relations in the long run. Additionally, Trump’s speeches at the UN projected an approach favoring nationalism over globalism,[6] which further underlines his America First platform for the United States going into the future. The implications of this approach highlight to the world that Trump is focusing his foreign policy in a way that quite literally puts the US “first”. The ramifications of a paradigm shift towards “America alone” and increasing isolationism are extremely dangerous, as globalization has connected countries and regions of the world like never before. Economies, markets, and industries are all interconnected in some form, and for a major actor such as the US to pursue a drastic foreign policy that excludes US partners may be detrimental to the country in the long-term.

In the short-term, the US has seen the effects of the trade war with China, which has caused significant swings in the stock markets.[7] Furthermore, the recent pandemic has raised questions on the source for many medications that are used by millions of Americans. An argument could be made for select drugs to be made in the US for national security reasons, but on a broader scale the issue of cost comes into play when contemplating drugs made only in the US. It is no secret that the US has one of the highest prices for prescription drugs, and it is possible that abandoning established supply chains with foreign countries could result in even higher costs for the average American.[8] Lastly, while President Trump has questioned the value of multilateralism, US strategy toward Africa has been inconsistent at times, placing the US at a disadvantage during the time of great power competition.

African Strategy

United States foreign security policy in Africa is at the time of writing guided by President Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS) of 2017. The NSS references growing economies on the continent and vast partnership opportunities for the US and Africa as their markets and economies grow. The strategy, however, also mentions concerns about corruption and weak governance. Furthermore, the NSS explicitly highlights China’s growing presence within Africa and how select Chinese practices weaken the continent’s ability to build sustainable development.[9] Likewise, the NSS states, “China and Russia target their investments in the developing world to expand influence and gain competitive advantages against the United States.”[10]

Since the publication of the NSS in 2017, US foreign policy towards Africa has fallen short for multiple reasons. Firstly, the Trump administration has experienced significant turnover in crucial personnel over the past three years. Peter Schraeder highlights that in the first twenty months of the new administration, the President had three different National Security Advisors, and Robert O’Brien was appointed as the fourth advisor in September of 2019.[11] Moreover, this high turnover rate puts the US at a significant disadvantage by owing to a lack of continuity and to the varying goals of each advisor. Brookings reports that among members of Trump’s executive office, he has experienced an 86 percent turnover rate, and 38 percent of those positions have experienced two or more replacements.[12] Similarly, Schraeder describes how the sudden removal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a negative message to Africa, as the President replaced him immediately following a trip to numerous African states.[13] The dismissal of Tillerson signaled to African countries that the validity of their conversations with the Secretary of State was in question and future cooperation with the US remained uncertain. Secondly, the Trump administration has looked to shift priorities away from Africa as the administration focuses on increased power competition with China and Russia. Mary Beth Long, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, stated: “We’re not even clear from an intelligence standpoint on what the underpinnings of a strategy would attempt to address and in part that’s because we have inadequate resources dedicated to the African continent.”[14]

Thirdly, in early 2020, the Pentagon ordered a review of forces within Africa by Defense Secretary Esper to see if troops can be realigned to other mission priorities.[15] This review comes at a critical juncture as great power competition with Russia and China has increased while the security environment in the Horn of Africa has remained fragile. It’s important to the US that during the review, the Pentagon considers that the US can effectively challenge Russia and China within the Horn as part of their broader great power competition. Furthermore, reducing US assets in the region can allow China to exploit the minimal US presence and also presents opportunities for further instability across the region. Highlighting this tenuous environment, the US experienced its first attack by Al-Shabaab, which killed three Americans at an airfield in Manda Bay, Kenya, on January 5, 2020.[16] This attack stresses the fragile environment throughout the Horn and the need for targeted US support to safeguard US interests throughout the region.

In addition to the impeachment trial of President Trump and the upcoming 2020 elections, the White House has been dealing with an array of global issues including, but not limited, a trade war with China, negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and managing the global coronavirus pandemic. While these global issues are all a significant demand on the US resources, it would appear that Africa is falling lower on the US priority list. This should be a concern as it provides China and Russia the opportunity to expand and increase their overall influence in the region at the cost of the US. Moreover, the region’s populace continues to suffer from instability, violence from groups such as Al-Shabaab, and weak institutions that lack the ability to provide basic services.

 

US Future in Africa

US troop levels do not on their own determine presence and influence in Africa, and over the years the US has also become a meaningful trading partner to the continent, showing the role of economic engagement. However, today China has surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner.[17] While President Trump has talked of increasing cooperation with Africa, his current foreign policy severely hinders its ability to do so. Trump’s administration launched a US initiative called “Prosper Africa” with the intent of growing partnerships between the US and Africa and empowering US private sector involvement in Africa.[18] Long-term collaboration and globalization have intertwined economies, and the US shares the same concerns many African states do regarding insecurity throughout the region. However, without a clear, consistent foreign policy and African strategy, the effectiveness of any initiative will be mired. As the US continues its role in the region, it must develop an effective approach that balances national competitiveness, securing national interests, and strengthening relations with African leaders across the region.

One example of an US initiative program is the International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). In 2019 the US government created the DFC, which forms a consolidated effort with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The DFC attempts to further US foreign policy and private sector competitiveness through multiple mediums, including equity financing, debt financing, political risk insurance, and technical development.[19] While the DFC operates worldwide, the level of involvement within the Horn of Africa is relatively limited compared to many other regions of the world except for Kenya. Somalia and Ethiopia make up only three projects consisting of nearly US $13 million, whereas Colombia has ten projects totaling over $1 billion and Sri Lanka has four projects totaling $19 million.[20] As the Trump administration places Russia and China as primary competitors on the world stage, not challenging them within the Horn of Africa is a severe US shortcoming. If the US is entering into another era of great power competition, the US must look to challenge China directly and indirectly in areas such as the Horn of Africa. To meet this challenge, the US needs to increase and diversify DFC efforts in the region while maximizing the partnerships and programs it has already developed. While US investment in the region is critical, the effective use of military and diplomatic powers will play an increasingly important role to the Horn, which can significantly aid in US influence and further strengthen US-Africa relations.

Great Power Competition in Africa

As the Trump administration looks to the future, the administration must develop a comprehensive strategy for the continent and especially the Horn of Africa. The geopolitics of the Horn cannot be understated, and the volume of foreign actors throughout the region highlights this importance. If the US pursues an America alone-type foreign policy, it risks alienating many African states that have developed relations with the US over decades. Furthermore, this isolation-like approach will push African leaders to other more developed nations like Russia and China, undermining the US efforts toward great power competition.

The next decade will likely play a decisive role throughout the region, as China strives to expand its Belt and Road Initiative further, and the US reevaluates its presence in Africa. If the US prioritizes great power competition as stated in the NSS, the US needs to challenge China and Russia indirectly in places such as the Horn of Africa. An effective strategy within the region allows for significant benefits in line with US national interests.

Although the current roles of China and Russia in the Horn of Africa may appear insignificant than other regions, it is critical given contemporary debates on security and global order, regional security, and challenges to political and economic US national interests. Furthermore, the US can challenge China and Russia as part of great-power competitions both directly and indirectly, for example through the US private sector taking a larger portion of African market share and increasing specific investment into the region. An effective strategy in the Horn of Africa must limit China’s and Russia’s expansion and increase US interests with an eye on long-term effects while building African capacity and security.


[1] J. J. Messner et al., Fragile States Index Annual Report 2019 (Washington, DC: The Fund for Peace, 2019), https://fragilestatesindex.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/9511904-fragilestatesindex.pdf.

[2] David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “Trump’s Next Task: Learning the Limits of Military Power,” War on the Rocks, May 2, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/05/trumps-next-task-learning-the-limits-of-military-power/.

[3] White House, National Security Strategy (Washington, D. C: White House, 2017), https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.

 

[4] Demetri Sevastopulo and Peter Spiegel, “Donald Trump Questions US Role in NATO,” Financial Times, March 21, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/2695854c-efaf-11e5-a609-e9f2438ee05b.

 

[5] Michael Birnbaum and Seung Min Kim, “Trump Calls Out NATO Members, Demands More Spending,” The Mercury News, July 11, 2018, last updated July 12, 2018, https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/07/11/trump-calls-out-nato-members-demands-more-spending/.

[6] Julian Borger, “Donald Trump Denounces ‘Globalism’ in Nationalist Address to UN,” The Guardian, September 24, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/sep/24/donald-trump-un-address-denounces-globalism.

 

[7] Reshma Kapadia, “There’s a Trade Deal with China. Here’s Why the Stock Market Isn’t Thrilled,” Barrons, December 13, 2019, https://www.barrons.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-deal-confusion-stocks-are-volatile-51576254365.

 

[8] Hannah Kuchler, “Why Prescription Drugs Cost so Much More in America.” Financial Times, September 18, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/e92dbf94-d9a2-11e9-8f9b-77216ebe1f17.

[9] White House, National Security Strategy (Washington, D. C: White House, 2017), https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.

 

[10] Ibid., 38.

 

[11] Peter J. Schraeder, “Making America Great Again’ Against the Backdrop of an ‘Africa Rising’? The Trump Administration and Africa’s Marginalization within US Foreign Policy,” Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy & International Relations 20, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 2018), https://nduezproxy.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.nduezproxy.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,url,uid&db=tsh&AN=136124986&site=eds-live&scope=site.

 

[12] Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, “Tracking Turnover in the Trump Administration,” Brookings, May 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/research/tracking-turnover-in-the-trump-administration/.

 

[13] Peter J. Schraeder, “Making America Great Again,”2018.

 

[14] Katie Williams, “From Small Wars to Great Power, Trump’s Africa Reset could Change US Military’s Role,” Defense One, December 12, 2018, https://www.defenseone.com/politics/2018/12/small-wars-great-power-trumps-africa-reset-could-change-us-militarys-role/153485/.

 

[15] Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer, “Pentagon Debates Drawdown in Africa, South America,” Foreign Policy, January 30, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/01/30/pentagon-troop-drawdown-africa-south-america-sahel-capitol-hill-congress-trump/.

[16] Wynne Davis, “3 Americans Killed in Attack on Kenyan Airfield by Al-Shabab Militants,” NPR.com, January 5, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/01/05/793752674/airfield-used-by-u-s-forces-in-kenya-comes-under-attack-by-al-shabab-militants.

[17] Lauren Blanchard and Sarah Collins, China’s Engagement in Djibouti, CRS Report No. IF11304 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2019), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/IF11304.pdf.

 

[18] International Trade Administration, “Prosper Africa,” US Department of Commerce, accessed January 14, 2020, https://www.trade.gov/prosper-africa.

 

[19] DFC.gov, “US International Development Finance Corporation,” DFC.gov, https://www.dfc.gov/who-we-are.

[20] U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, “Active DFC Projects-Map View,” DFC.gov, project date as of December 31, 2019, https://www3.opic.gov/ActiveProjectsMap/Default.aspx#.

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