The November 2020 US presidential election was a unique moment in the global post-Cold war epoch; it came at a time when the world battled the COVID-19 pandemic and also ushered in the post-Trumpism era.
The pandemic and Trumpism threatened globalisation. Shrouded in the foggy sentimental expression of “Make America Great Again”, Trumpism sought to cut back on the gains made through globalisation as evidenced by the US-China trade war, America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and World Health Organisation (WHO) among other policy faux pas.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), in late 2019, forecasted a loss of about $700 billion for the global economy by the end of 2020 as a result of the trade war. The situation may have worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Accordingly, a report published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) – “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Trade and Development: Transitioning to a New Normal” – the global economy was bound to contract by 4.3% in 2020 with 130 million people pushed into extreme poverty due to the pandemic.
A few months after the outbreak of Coronavirus, global supply chains were massively disrupted prompting debate about the future of globalisation. For some, such large-scale disruption was bound to trigger relocation of enterprises back to their home countries. For others, globalisation was still the fulcrum for global economic recovery post-COVID-19. In fact, in an article I wrote in April 2020, I noted that globalisation will still be fashioned by state and non-state actors as key in the recovery of the global economy.
Fast forward, the victory of Joe Biden and Trump’s exit have several geopolitical implications for Africa in terms of security, trade, foreign aid, vaccine diplomacy, and others. But the concern is whether African states are formulating the necessary strategies and policies to address the complexities presented by this critical juncture.
Growth of Global Multilateralism: A More Globally Integrated But Less Economically Powerful Africa
So far, there has been a global approach towards addressing the pandemic and its effects especially in terms of vaccine development and financial support for the needy economies. This, coupled with the election of Joe Biden, will accelerate global multilateralism.
More importantly, Biden’s administration is expected to openly support global trade unlike Trump’s which was hell-bent on making America great by fashioning autarky.
In essence, Biden’s administration will renege on Trump’s policies meant to scuttle global multilateralism. This will enhance Africa’s global integration.
The Trump administration’s policy for Africa promoted bilateral engagements between Washington and African states. The US-Kenya free trade agreement (FTA) is an example of the carrot-and-stick method meant to scuttle Africa’s plans to implement the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA). The FTA was to serve as a model for America’s bilateral dealings with other African countries.
Under Joe Biden, it is highly unlikely that Washington will continue with the bilateral policy approach in Africa due to two major reasons. First, Biden’s administration will be obsessed with countering China’s growing influence in Africa with Beijing having expressed support for the AfCFTA. As such, Washington may consider backing up the AfCFTA and other collective initiatives. Second, it will be more convenient for Biden’s administration to holistically support Africa’s recovery post-COVID-19 rather than adopt piecemeal bilateral engagements.
The growth of global multilateralism under Biden's administration means that Africa will be more integrated globally, but this will not necessarily translate to improved economic fortunes on a grand scale. Fundamentally, global trade is about national interests; more of knavish and less of knightly behaviours and notions.
Historically, trade interests advanced by Washington work more in favour of Americans than Africans. Biden’s administration will be no different in enhancing these ‘Bad Samaritan’ policies – to borrow Ha-Joon Chang’s description of the flawed, biased economic policies that work in favour of developed economies and disadvantage developing ones.
Make Foreign Aid Great Again: More and More Aid for Africa
Trump’s administration slashed foreign aid and this affected various social and economic initiatives in Africa. Nonetheless, Trump’s “New Africa Strategy” appeared to be an “America First” politically correct document, kind of nebulous in some foreign policy issues, while clear-cut on some.
For instance, while Trump's administration endeavored to facilitate stability of African economies through foreign aid assistance, its insistence on the efficient and effective use of U.S taxpayer dollars for aid, withdrawing support for "unproductive, unsuccessful, and unaccountable U.N. peacekeeping missions", and targeting "U.S. funding toward key countries and particular strategic objectives" set the tone for scaling down one of Washington’s age-old foreign policy instruments in Africa.
Of course foreign aid, in a blanket sense, has undermined Africa’s socio-economic and political development. The U.S., for instance, has a tainted history of supporting vicious, inhuman, and fantastically corrupt politicians and governments in Africa for geostrategic reasons. As such, foreign aid is a carrot that Washington has dangled in Africa for decades, and even Trump's politically correct strategy for Africa is not fundamentally different in any way.
Fast forward, Biden's administration is highly likely to reverse Trump's approach to the issuance of foreign aid for African countries. In essence, a strong case for Biden’s administration to increase foreign aid for Africa is premised on the need for strong global economic recovery given the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and attempts to rival China’s growing influence on the continent.
Additionally, Biden’s administration may direct more foreign aid towards the growth and development of Africa's democratic space, but this could be effectively slowed down by America's recent struggle with democracy, heightened and almost ruptured by Trumpism.
Primarily, the next four years in Africa will be a period of making foreign aid great again. How African national governments, and extensively the AU, are prepared to handle the nefarious effects, or otherwise positive, of an increase in aid is a different discussion, but one that points out to the lack of strategies to address the changing times.
Geopolitics and Geostrategic Interests: The Race for Africa is Still On
Apart from the common foreign policy issues such as military engagement, counter-terrorism activities, and trade, the footprints of Biden’s administration in Africa will also be defined by the COVID-19 diplomacy and geopolitics of 5G technology.
Nothing much is expected to change given Washington's military engagement with African states except for the Biden administration to cut back on Trump’s plan to withdraw support for the costly U.N. peacekeeping missions.
But a hostile domestic environment in the U.S. characterized by a contracting economy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic could be a game-changer concerning Washington's military priorities in Africa. However, the history of America's foreign policy is as instructive as ever before with the reality that the military-industrial complex fuels the U.S. economy. As such, the military-industrial complex is expected to be a crucial growth frontier given the recovery of America's economy, and existing military markets in Africa especially in strategic regions such the Horn of Africa, the Niger Delta and West Africa, the Congo, and North Africa will lay a case for an aggressive strategy by the Biden administration.
The COVID-19 diplomacy will shape Biden’s policy for Africa in terms of foreign aid assistance as earlier explained, and more categorically, the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. In mid-2020, Donald Trump vowed to cut relations and eventually have the U.S. withdraw her membership from the WHO, a move which would have weakened the global health body considering that America is its biggest funder. The repercussions in terms of vaccine accessibility would have been profound especially in Africa.
Biden’s administration is expected to scale back on America’s withdrawal from WHO as a sign of offering leadership in global health, thereby countering China’s support for the Organisation voiced during the China-Africa Extraordinary Summit.
How Biden’s administration will measure up to Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy in Africa will determine its resilience in enhancing cooperation. China declared her support for African countries to access the vaccine during the Extraordinary Summit convened in May 2020 and reiterated the same in October 2020 when fifty-one African diplomats visited Sinopharm – a leading manufacturer of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Under Biden, Washington may look to enhance its vaccine diplomacy in Africa by shoring up support for WHO; by increasing its funding and budgetary allocation to the COVAX facility.
Geopolitics of 5G technology will be a top priority for Biden’s administration, and Africa will be a key front. As it stands, it is a tall order for the U.S. to convince African governments to shun the China-based Huawei, and it is highly doubtful if Biden’s administration will win this war. The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) notes that hampering China’s 5G ambitions in Africa is limited because the Chinese government provides funding to Huawei’s data operations across Africa, in addition to the company building most of the data networks across the continent. In effect, the U.S. must be ready to bear the financial implications demanded by African governments in exchange for abandoning Beijing’s 5G ambitions.
During the China-Africa Extraordinary Summit, China outlined her areas of cooperation, and as stated by President Xi Jinping: “China will explore broader cooperation with Africa in such new business forms as digital economy, smart city, clean energy, and 5G to boost Africa’s development and revitalization”. Notably, Beijing has a head start in the 5G race in Africa, and the reaction of the Biden administration will be interesting to watch.
All eyes are on the actions of Biden’s administration in Africa, and one thing is for sure; Washington will be more visible in Africa than it was during Trump’s presidency. But, how are African governments preparing to engage Washington especially in an era defined by post-Trumpism, COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy, and 5G geopolitics?
By Sitati Wasilwa