America First Shouldn’t Mean America Alone

If Donald Trump can’t play nice with U.S. allies, his presidency could crash and burn in the Horn of Africa.


Successive U.S. administrations have had their strategic plans shattered in the Horn of Africa. Between the “Black Hawk Down” fiasco in Somalia, the Darfur genocide, and the implosion of South Sudan, few regions have proved as resistant to the designs of American policymakers. But in addition to notable failures — South Sudan being perhaps the most glaring — Barack Obama achieved a number of qualified successes there during his presidency, including partnering with African military allies to drive al-Shabab militants out of Somalia’s cities and convincing Sudan, long a regional pariah, to begin coming in from the cold.

These successes stemmed from the Obama administration’s willingness to work cooperatively with allies. They now risk being undone by President Donald Trump, who will probably retain the Obama administration’s robust counterterrorism efforts but has made no secret of his disdain for multilateralism.

Take his Jan. 27 executive order severely restricting immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Sudan and Somalia. Trump spoke frequently about instituting a so-called “Muslim ban” on the campaign trail, but his order targeting dual citizens, green card holders, and other visa holders still rattled allies around the globe. In Sudan, in particular, it risked undoing years of painstaking diplomacy that had managed to achieve a de facto détente only weeks prior.

In early January, shortly before leaving office, President Barack Obama lifted economic and trade sanctions imposed on Sudan after it was designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Washington’s decision to begin the process of diplomatically rehabilitating Khartoum was a reward for Sudan’s cooperation on regional counterterrorism goals and its willingness to join the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. Once a rogue regime that harbored Osama bin Laden, Sudan now works closely with U.S. intelligence agencies in the war on terror.

But this transformation didn’t happen as a result of unilateral U.S. pressure; it was the result of coordinated pressure on the part of America’s Persian Gulf allies, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries threatened to withhold financial support for the Sudanese regime if it did not end its military relationship with Iran. Later, they threatened to expel Sudanese guest workers — a vital source of remittances — while Saudi Arabia briefly closed its airspace to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. After Sudan expelled the majority of Iran’s government personnel in 2014, its relations with America’s Middle Eastern allies significantly improved. Israel and the Gulf states even lobbied the Obama administration to relax sanctions on Khartoum.

A similar multilateral approach helped roll back al-Shabab’s gains in Somalia. The United States has worked closely with regional allies in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which leads the counterinsurgency effort there. In addition to training and equipping troops from Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti, among other nations, the United States has carried out drone strikes and special operations raids, often in direct support of AMISOM partners. The result has been marked improvement in securing Somalia’s major cities, though al-Shabab continues to pose a significant terrorist threat.

Trump’s executive order tramples on the multilateral approach that enabled these qualified successes. In Sudan, it could freeze the rapprochement with Khartoum, and reduce American leverage there, at a time when key U.S. allies have sought to deepen their relations with the country. In Somalia, it has eroded the already shaky confidence that Somali political elites had in their U.S. partner while doing much to damage America’s rapport with the Somali people. Making matters worse, the Trump administration has signaled its desire to disengage from the kinds of multilateral institutions that have helped make halting progress in Somalia possible. Both the United Nations and the European Union have played key roles in channeling assistance to AMISOM, but Trump has threatened to slash U.S. contributions to the U.N., and he has proposed appointing an ambassador to the EU who questions the basic value of a united Europe.

The risk that Trump’s unilateral approach could backfire is even greater because the challenges his administration has inherited in the Horn of Africa are just as vexing — if not more vexing — than those that greeted the Obama administration in 2009. In addition to the civil war in Somalia, there is a seemingly intractable conflict in South Sudan; looming succession crises in Sudan, Eritrea, and Djibouti; and growing unrest in Ethiopia, America’s pivotal ally in the region and its primary engine of economic growth. Meanwhile, a decades-long period of economic expansion seems to be ending, leaving many U.S. allies politically vulnerable and more dependent than ever on American engagement.

Yet Trump’s own policies could cause further economic distress. His administration has floated plans to restrict trade, increase the cost of borrowing, and limit migration. Such measures could lead to diminished remittances sent from the United States and elsewhere in the West — long the lifeblood of economies across the region, including Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. Failure to renew the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act of 2000, which gives dozens of African countries the right to export certain goods duty-free to the United States, would deal the region another blow.

Flagging growth has already sparked violent unrest across the Horn of Africa. One of the first victims was South Sudan, which reported record deficits when the price of oil collapsed in 2012. Some have speculated that the country’s economic stagnation precipitated the violent collapse of its government at the end of 2013. Meanwhile, mass protests driven by economic grievances have erupted in several nearby countries, including Ethiopia and Sudan. Last October and November, Khartoum was rocked by a series of popular strikes protesting a 30 percent increase in fuel prices, as well as price hikes for basic medicines of between 100 and 150 percent. Even larger protests played out across Ethiopia in 2016, as youth unemployment and anger over land seizures fueled mass discontent.

In addition to going it alone, Trump’s foreign policy seems to be about shirking liberal values like democracy, human rights, and good governance in favor of short-term, security-based bargains with individual states. Of course, the commitment of previous administrations to liberal values has often been little more than rhetorical. But where they have been the most successful in projecting American power — especially in the Horn of Africa — they have fostered robust and stable institutions in partner countries. By contrast, the American military and diplomatic corps have tended to be most ineffective in Africa when institutions have broken down and the political terrain has become fractured and opaque, as they very well might under the influence of a White House that cares little for democratic values.

Image credit: Scott Peterson / Liaison / Getty Images