From left to right: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Donald Trump. Photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA

When it comes to Africa, what would Donald Trump do?

The five remaining candidates for the Democratic and Republican presidential tickets haven’t said much about U.S.-Africa relations — hardly a hot-button issue in American politics at the moment. Since we probably can’t expect questions about Feed the Future, or the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or sanctions against Zimbabwe to surface in the primary debates — where job growth and national security reign supreme — the Africa-America Institute brought together some of the candidates’ advisors to speculate on what sort of “Africa legacy” each of them might try to build as president of the United States.

Foreign policy toward Africa has not typically been a divisive subject in American politics. Fiscally conservative politicians lent their support to massive aid packages like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — or PEPFAR — while the Democratic Barack Obama administration has championed a business-first approach to investments in energy and agriculture. Yet amidst a U.S. primary season more combative and colorful than any in recent memory, even the candidates’ “surrogates” offered some stark — and quotable — differences of opinion.

At least for those candidates who have an opinion.

“I can be very fast about Sen. [Ted] Cruz’s Africa policy, because he doesn’t have one,” said Michael Ledeen, freedom scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and adviser to the Ted Cruz presidential campaign. “He’s been busy with other things. Texas takes a lot of time all by itself,” Ledeen added.

While that may be true, Ledeen and the other representatives present were all able to offer a glimpse of what we might expect should their respective candidates find themselves with a desk in the Oval Office come January 2017.

Here are the main takeaways from each campaign surrogate’s remarks:

Hillary Clinton

Represented by: Michelle Gavin, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs
Keyword: “Engagement”

Gavin — who appeared in place of scheduled Clinton “surrogate” Ambassador Johnnie Carson — championed Clinton’s “long and deep record of engagement on the continent.”

“Engagement is really the watchword for the way [Clinton] thinks about U.S. policy on the continent going forward,” Gavin said.

Clinton’s surrogate suggested the former secretary of state would pay particular attention to the “tremendous opportunities for mutually beneficial gains in growth” shared by the United States and a “tremendously diverse” African continent. Gavin also quickly cautioned that talking about an overarching “Africa policy” may not be the wisest approach.

“I always worry ... when we talk about ‘Africa,’ as if there’s one blanket policy prescription that makes sense,” Gavin said. At the same time she added that critical issues like security, economic prosperity and global problems such as climate change will require both broad coalitions and deepened engagement with African governments, civil society, and the private sector.

“We need partners on the continent who are dealing with the impact of climate change today to think about how we move forward in the future,” Gavin said.

Bernie Sanders

Represented by Wala Blegay, founder of the Alliance of Liberians in America
Keyword: “Justice”

Blegay, a Liberian-American, pointed to Sanders’ over 20 years of support for public health, economic development and human rights in Africa as a member of congress.

“His campaign has been about economic justice,” Blegay said. “He doesn’t just believe [in] economic justice in the United States, but … also [in] economic justice abroad. Belgay noted Sanders’ support for the African Growth and Opportunity Act and for U.S. foreign assistance to Africa.

“When it comes to security, when it comes to peace, conflicts in Africa, he does believe in a collaborative approach — working with the local governments and working with the international community to … instill peace and security in the region,” Blegay said, adding that for Sanders war is an option of last resort.

Blegay also noted that she and other advisors are working to help Sanders see Africa as more than the sum of its crises, and that throwing money at the continent does not constitute a long-term vision for engaging with its potential.

Donald Trump

Represented by J.D. Gordon, former Pentagon spokesman
Keywords: “Make America great again”

“I can’t speak for Mr. Trump — as a disclaimer — I can share some of his worldview though,” Gordon began. And as it turned out, it is a worldview that has been well shared already: “to make America great again.”

That means focusing on “major bridges falling into the Mississippi River” — like the I-35W Mississippi River bridge did nine years ago, killing 13 people — and “urban areas that have really fallen apart in many ways,” said Gordon, who also advised both Herman Cain’s and Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaigns.

“As far as our international relations, [Trump] wants to win on trade,” Gordon said. “Certainly he wants strong ties with Africa. He wants strong economic development [links] between the United States and Africa,” Gordon added, pointing to “strong business ties” as a likely emphasis.

The surrogate also reiterated Trump’s intolerance for the Islamic State and recognition of the threats posed by “radical Islam.” In addition to Trump’s own dedication to these national security issues, Gordon said a “President Trump” would likely look to groups like the African Union “to do more than they are doing right now.”

Ted Cruz

Represented by Michael Ledeen, freedom scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Keywords: “Disease,” “Terror,” “Nelson Mandela,” and “Abolish Ex-Im Bank”

After downplaying Cruz’s engagement with African policy questions, suggesting that Cruz “will be unpredictable on Africa” and “take it case by case,” Ledeen zeroed in on a few subjects that come as little surprise.

While not specific to African development policy, Cruz’s calls to shut down the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the export credit agency that facilitates U.S. businesses investments in developing countries, would likely continue under his presidential tenure. Cruz’s opposition to Ex-Im is “part of a general principle” not to lend money to governments, Ledeen said. “Grants are much better. Loans tend not to be paid back or end up in the pockets of people you didn’t intend [them] for.”

The two matters that will concern Cruz most will be “disease and terror,” Ledeen said, but Cruz, “will not be inclined to have big ‘hashtag’ campaigns, or things like that,” Ledeen added, presumably referring to major presidential initiatives supported by social media advocacy.

Cruz has repeatedly asked for “serious studies” and policies to address the potential for immigrants, including those from Africa, to carry disease with them from abroad, Ledeen said. “It used to be routine for immigrants to the united states to go through extensive medical checkups … This somehow now has turned into some kind of violation of some sort of right,” he said.

Ledeen also reflected on Cruz’s “adamant” participation in Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony, for which Ledeen said Cruz took a lot of criticism from his political base. Cruz admired Mandela’s “personal courage” and “his amazing refusal to seek revenge,” Ledeen said.

John Kasich

Represented by: Ambassador Herman “Hank” Cohen, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs
Keywords: “Economic enabling environment”

Despite his initial observation that Republicans and Democrats rarely fight over Africa policy, Kasich’s representative to the panel made a strong plug for the legacy of Republican engagement on the continent.

“Here’s a partisan statement,” Cohen said. “I believe if you look at post-colonial Africa, it has been the republican administrations that have been the most creative and the most innovative,” he added, before listing the African policy accomplishments of Republican Presidents Dwight Eisenhower through George W. Bush.

So how would a “President Kasich” build upon that legacy? By helping to create the economic enabling environment that will coax businesses and capital toward African investment opportunities, according to Cohen. “The future of Africa ... must be based on private sector investment, mainly from Africans themselves,” he said.

Kasich’s number one priority — or, at least, “what his advisers are telling him” — is to help create “the enabling environment for the private sector, where Africans can bring back the $5 billion they have parked outside Africa and invest with confidence,” Cohen said. “Then Africa can go a long way and America will be on their side.”

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.

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