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The Fragility of U.S.-Africa Policy Revealed

· Africa

The Trump administration made an overt attempt to take over the financial levers of Africa by targeting the African Development Bank (AfDB), the premier development finance institution on the continent. Yet the external investigation forced upon the bank’s board of governors by the U.S. – who totally disregarded the results of the bank’s own internal probe - generated only isolated expressions of outrage among members of the bank and none elsewhere.

The international press, including African press, echoed many congratulatory utterances over the results of the investigation, which confirmed the bank’s internal probe. The external investigation cleared the AfDB’s president, Akinwumi Adesina, of any wrongdoing. The “verdict” has generated many celebratory articles but very little analysis. Why was Adesina’s clearing by the bank’s own ethics committee not enough?

The Trump administration’s white fragility

America’s move on the AfDB reveals for what it was: an effort by the U.S. Treasury Secretary to please a president’s desire through a signature Trump administration strategy. The U.S. misused its power to bully the African bank’s board of governors to agree to a U.S.-led external and “independent” investigation of the bank’s president. Akinwumi Adesina had already been cleared by the bank’s Ethics Committee and the results of its internal investigation had been accepted by a majority of the bank’s board of governors. But that was worthless.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Munchin, in a letter dated May 22 addressed to Niale Kaba, chairwoman of the bank’s board of governors, expressed his disagreement with the total exoneration of Adesina and deep reservations about the integrity of the committee's process. The verdict had to be emitted by a U.S.-sanctioned “in-depth investigation of the allegations … using the services of an independent outside investigator of high professional standing" (emphasis added).

Foreign policy begins at home

The Trump administration’s assault on the African Development Bank is not, as some have hinted, part of a sinister neocolonialist plot to dominate Africa by derailing its financial progress nor is it a Western imperialism attempt at back door hostage finance. It’s also not a Western plot against African self-sufficiency.

There’s a simpler, more somber explanation. It’s the acting-out of the present U.S. administration’s white identity politics. Those controlling the power levers in the Trump administration are driven by, to quote Michael Gerson (The Washington Post, 7/31/20), the “instinct of us vs. them”. The belief is that the overwhelmingly white “us” must preserve white supremacy from diversity not just at home but abroad as well.

It is also a clear expression of the U.S. president’s (mis)understanding of effective American foreign policy as unilateral and one that necessarily translates into the non-sequitur of a mythical new cold war, this time with China. The U.S. Treasury Secretary’s sycophantic translation of this non-sequitur into what amounts to a little diplomatic demand for an external investigation is an example of how to malpractice American power using opportunistic muscle flexing and bullying tactics. Indeed, it’s an example of how and why foreign policy begins at home.

Playing the race card in foreign policy

The U.S. assault on the AfDB was clearly a race card play. It was also the result of the inherent biases that motivate the Trump administration.

The panel for the U.S.-mandated external investigation also included two Africans, Hassan B Jallow, the chief justice of the supreme court of Gambia, and Leonard McCarthy, a former director of public prosecutions in South Africa. Yet they have been made practically invisible. They are scarcely even mentioned in the slew of articles that have been published by different information sources. Were they, perhaps, included as straw men? Or is it simply that they were included for optics but whose analyses (which were surely o equal professional standing as that of the former Irish President Mary Robinson, who headed the 3-person panel) only had weight if communicated by a White European?

This is not to say that Mary Robinson is herself guilty of anything or has behaved in a reproachable manner at the behest of the United States. Not at all. She is a very respectable and honorable public servant who crusaded for women and those without a voice in Ireland and beyond. She was also the first woman elected President of Ireland, before being appointed U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

But why does Mary Robinson’s word count more for the U.S. than the word of the other two panel members, both African, or of the 80 other members of the bank’s board of governors? Could it be because the voting power on the Board is split 60%-40% between African (or "regional") countries and “non-regional” member countries (“donors”) but the power of their word is worth less to the U.S. than that of a single white of “high professional standing” (versus the low professional standing of Africans?)?

This smacks of what Robin Diangelo calls White Fragility (2018), which is “triggered by discomfort and anxiety” but is “born of superiority and entitlement” that are used as a “powerful means of white control and protection of white advantage.” This is an unquestionable part of the Trump administration’s halls of power. But isn’t it time for African institutions, like the African Development Bank, to deal with the ingrained racism that also apparently roils some of its members and weakens the institution’s confidence in its own power to protect Africans from non-African foreign policy racism? After all, by acceding to an external investigation, the bank violated its own rules.

The false promise of American-style justice

The U.S. is but one of the 81 members of the AfDB’s board of governors and has a 6.472% vs. Nigeria’s 9.120%, the largest shareholder. Yet the U.S. assumed it had a “natural” right to demand “justice”.

This latest story of America’s assault on a foreign institution may not be anything new in the history of U.S. foreign policy. But at a time when calls for racial justice are carried by peaceful protestors from one city to another around the world, the AfDB affair was a crass attempt that lays bare the Trump administration’s motivating biases: 1) to uphold a delusional belief in America’s mythical manifest destiny and the consequent right to employ power to “domesticate” the world by bringing “order” to “barbarians” and 2) the tendency towards oligarchy as an order-creating process that is not amenable to rule-enforcement or rule-following; it is based on dominance through coercion of weak adversaries that lack the capacity for major retaliation.

Against the backdrop of America’s raging commercial rivalry with China, the AfDB story makes evident President Trump’s indomitable desire to counter China’s growing commercial and financial clout in a heretofore continent ignored and insulted by Trump. By using coercion to gain control of Africa’s multilateral development bank, the Trump administration thinks it can

win Africa back and consequently block Chinese expansion to regain abandoned market shares.

An irresponsible exercise of American power

The demand for an external investigation to confirm or deny an internal process of an African institution cannot, of course, be understood as a single individual exercising power. As Patrick Porter writes in his recently publish book The False Promise of the Liberal Order (2020), an individual public official is a part of a system, one in which intellectual corruption is both a symptom and catalyst.

America is no longer capable of dominating the international system. As prophesized by the celebrated political realist Robert Gilpin’s, the politics of distribution has replaced the previously benign politics of growth as the motor for American foreign policy. At the same time, America’s edge has been reduced and the U.S. faces a mounting problem of insolvency. So the bully-in-chief and his pleasers have found nothing better than to use American power to force access to the financial resources out of its directional control.

What the irresponsible exercise of American power to bully the African Development Bank has revealed is the jealous, intolerant and dishonest character of the Trump administration’s U.S. foreign policy. It is one driven by a cultish denial of an evident reality: wealth is shifting from West to East. But Africa is no one's trump card. The U.S., using former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s words (The Room Where It Happened, 2020) must "reconnect errant policies to reality".

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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