United States (US) presidential elections seem to be entertaining by design. They are also enormously important for the rest of the world.
This election is no different.
In fact, the run-up to today’s poll has been more entertaining – and its outcome will be more influential – than any other in recent memory. Whatever happens will affect nearly every country on the globe, and especially those in Africa.
The George W Bush administration and its foreign policy will forever be tainted by the disastrous decision to invade Iraq, and the eventual fallout that bolstered existing terrorist organisations (such as al-Qaeda) and helped fan the flames of new groups (like the Islamic State, or ISIS). But on other fronts, the Bush administration’s efforts to help Africa were quite successful. For example, President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (known as PEPFAR) has been tremendously beneficial for human development.
The foreign policy of the Obama administration has also been a mixed bag. There have been successes, for example the Iran nuclear deal, the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) and the drawdown of military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. There have also been disappointments: the failure to close Guantanamo Bay and the drawing of a ‘red line’ in Syria (that was subsequently ignored) stand out.
For Africa, the most harmful policy of the Obama administration was arguably the lack of follow-through in Libya after the ousting of its former leader, Muammar Gaddafi. When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization walked away from Libya, it created a power vacuum that left the region thoroughly destabilised.
A key question now is to what extent Obama’s successor would deviate from the present trajectory of US foreign policy.
A Hillary Clinton presidency would likely see a continuation of the status quo, albeit with a more hawkish stance on issues like Syria and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A Donald Trump presidency on the other hand, could range anywhere from a return to the isolationism of the pre-9/11 Bush years, to a full-on dismantling of a national, bipartisan foreign policy that has remained largely unchanged since the Eisenhower administration.
Take the matter of torture, for instance. There is ample evidence to suggest that previous US presidents have condoned torture. The most recent example is likely the Bush administration’s defence of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, but others might point to the School of the Americas during the 1970-1980s, or the MK-ULTRA programme before that.
What is different about Trump, though, is that he openly advocates the use of torture. On 23 March, Trump told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, ‘I think we have to change our law on the waterboarding thing.’ Trump has also expressed his desire to keep Guantanamo Bay open.
Another example is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. President Obama has been consistently criticised for the rapid escalation of US drone strikes during the last eight years. But he has also expressed regret over civilian casualties and articulated concern about the future of the programme in less benevolent hands: concerns that may be viewed as remarkably prescient in light of a possible Trump victory.
In an interview with Fox in December 2015, Trump said: ‘…when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families… when they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.’ This in direct violation of Article 51.2 of the Geneva Convention. Research from the Institute for Security Studies suggests that such heavy-handed responses could, in fact, drive individuals toward extremism. Trump has also announced, repeatedly, his intention to ‘crush and destroy ISIS’.
This indicates that Trump is determined to eliminate not only those directly affiliated with ISIS, but also their families. A growing number of terrorist organisations in Africa have declared an affiliation with ISIS, so this could mean hundreds – if not thousands – of civilians killed in drone strikes during his administration. An impetuous approach to counterterrorism will undoubtedly backfire.
If Donald Trump were elected and implemented the foreign policy he campaigned on, he could become the single most effective recruiting tool for terrorist organisations across the globe.
Then there’s the world’s most sophisticated nuclear arsenal. According to MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Trump repeatedly asked a national security advisor why the US could not use nuclear weapons. In the second presidential debate, Trump said ‘I can’t take anything off the table,’ with respect to a nuclear first-strike. Does this mean that Trump, if elected, would consider a nuclear first-strike on, say Dabiq, or Sirte or Cairo, if he was assured that he could kill enough senior members of ISIS, irrespective of the number of civilians killed?
Apart from military force, another important question about a Trump presidency surrounds the future of American humanitarian assistance. A turn toward isolationism is implicit in all of his ‘make America great again’ rhetoric. But there is also evidence to suggest that he may have support for rolling back America’s commitments to improving human development abroad. An annual poll from the Kaiser Foundation consistently finds that the majority of Americans believe the US spends too much on foreign aid, and that it should be cut.
The average American believes that the US gives roughly 20% of its budget away as foreign assistance. The actual figure is less than 1%, but the important point is that most Americans believe it’s much more than that – and there is broad support (from 56% of the population) for cuts.
About a third of American foreign aid is directed at health programmes, and much of that at Africa. This means that any reduction in American foreign aid will have far-reaching effects on health outcomes on the continent.
If cut, programmes like PEPFAR and PMI may stop making progress, and the countries that currently receive those funds might be unable to fill the gap. It is possible that other donors could pick up the slack – but Europe is increasingly looking inward on migration policy, and Asian countries remain focused on infrastructure development – so that would seem unlikely, at least in the short term. Trump has also promised to ‘cancel billions in climate change spending for the United Nations’, which would deal a crippling blow to Africa’s ability to mitigate the effects of climate change.
US foreign policy has never been guided by altruism: it is inherently self-interested and often short sighted, but, by and large, it is consistent. As a candidate, Trump has been anything but that. He has waivered on his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, his stance on climate change, the use of nuclear weapons and his view on torture, among other policy positions. NBC news actually has a webpage dedicated to Trump’s inconsistency.
A Trump presidency would represent a departure from nearly 70 years of bipartisan support for a singular American foreign policy objective, advancing America’s national interest. Trump’s inability to articulate a coherent set of policies raises serious questions as to whether or not he has any convictions about what he believes would advance American interests.
He could defer matters to experts, but this seems increasingly unlikely given how many have publically censured him, along with his apparent inability to ignore or forgive any criticism. In August, 50 prominent Republican national security experts (many of whom served George W Bush) signed an open letter saying that Trump would be a threat to national security and ‘the most reckless president in American history’.
A Trump presidency also would likely see elevated support for authoritarian leaders – many of whom govern African states – who use counterterrorism as a guise to repress citizens who voice opposing views, further restricting civil liberties. South Africa, a country Trump referred to as a ‘total – and very dangerous – mess’ in a tweet last year, is not immune from this treatment. A Trump presidency is not only dangerous for the US, it is dangerous for Africa and the rest of the world as well.
Zachary Donnenfeld, Researcher, African Futures and Innovation, Pretoria
Full disclosure: the author is an American who did not vote for the Republican candidate.