When US president-elect Joe Biden takes office in 2021, he will have to repair the foreign policy damage his predecessor caused. Where South Africa and Africa will feature on that list of priorities is not clear.
Day one, if I win, I’m going to be on the phone with our Nato allies saying, ‘We’re back,’” US president-elect Joe Biden told Arizona TV in July.
That really ought to be a group call that the whole world joins. For, with a few notable exceptions – like his fellow-populist, Jair Bolsanaro, president of Brazil, and no doubt his chum, Russian president Vladimir Putin – the globe is immeasurably relieved at what it hopes is the impending departure from the White House of Donald Trump – the aggressive and offensive unilateralist who turned his back on the world.
That departure, however, is not quite assured yet, as Trump refuses to concede defeat, even as Biden has racked up 306 votes (at the time of writing) in the electoral college – 36 more than he needs. Trump’s challenge to the results in five battleground states will, at the very least, ensure a difficult transition and distract Biden from his difficult task of repairing damaged relations at home and abroad.
And even some sober analysts still fear that Trump may yet pull off some legal or political trick to stay in office. But if Trump fails, as seems likely, Biden’s foreign policy priority will be to restore America’s relations with its allies. Its European Nato allies feared the organisation would not survive a second Trump term. “We need a leader who will be ready on day one to pick up the pieces of Donald Trump’s broken foreign policy and repair the damage he has caused around the world,” Biden tweeted earlier this year.
Globally, there are other calls Biden can make on day one. Like one to Geneva, to tell the World Health Organization that the US is back. And another one to reinstate the US in the Paris Agreement on climate change. He could, and might very well, also return the US to the Iran de-nuclearisation deal, rejoining European allies. And so on.
Where does this all leave South Africa and Africa, though? Neither ever features very high on Washington’s agenda, and Trump aggravated the neglect and added gratuitous insult. Assuming Biden is sworn in on 20 January, he will have many other priorities, domestic and foreign.
The Covid-19 pandemic is resurging, for one thing. The Republicans will likely retain control of the senate, able and ready to block Biden’s nominees as he tries to set up an administration and to repair the institutions gutted by Trump. Trump’s supporters, who still represent just under half of the US population, will be roaring resistance.
Africa and SA are likely to be bumped further down the priority list, acknowledges Millard Arnold, a SA-based US lawyer who served as the first minister counsellor to Africa for commercial affairs for the US department of commerce during the Clinton administration.
But he believes Biden could send a strong positive message to Pretoria immediately by nominating a prominent person – very likely an African American – as his ambassador to the country. Arnold recalls how Trump instead signalled contempt by taking over two years to nominate an ambassador.
And Biden could send a positive message to wider Africa by appointing someone to the same position he held, as Minister Counsellor to Africa for Commercial Affairs. This person should have the primary responsibility of managing US relations with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which is set to start operating on 1 January next year.
Arnold notes that Biden’s daughter-in-law, Melissa, married to his son Hunter, is South African. This, along with the prominent role Biden played as a senator who pushed for US sanctions against the apartheid government in the 1980s, has given him a strong interest in SA.
And he is likely to be more sympathetic to SA’s position in the current review that the US is undertaking on SA’s continued preferential trade access to the
US – which has been jeopardised by claims from US producers of music and other creative material that their copyrights are being violated here. The review threatens both SA’s enjoyment of US market access under the General System of Preferences (GSP) and the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).
Having said that, it must be recalled that the US government largely responds to the demands of its private sector on commercial issues. It was the Obama administration that provisionally suspended some of SA’s Agoa benefits in 2015 because of the high import tariffs Pretoria had slapped on imports of US chicken and other meat products.
Ironically, Chris Coons, the Democrat senator for the chicken-producing state of Delaware, who put the squeeze on SA back in 2015, is now a strong contender to become Biden’s secretary of state. He is a firm advocate of closer US ties with Africa – and with SA – even if his constituents put him under pressure back then to force Pretoria to open its chicken market.
Susan Rice, former Africa director in President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council and President Barack Obama’s UN ambassador, has also been punted as a possible secretary of state. But she is a controversial figure, and Washington insiders believe that Biden would have difficulty getting her confirmed by a hostile Republican-controlled senate – and so might opt for Coons, who is of course on good terms with the senate.
Trump never visited sub-Saharan Africa and notoriously labelled some of its nations as “shithole countries”. Those Washington insiders believe Biden will try to visit the continent soon and will certainly step up the schedule of cabinet secretary visits.
And they say he will likely convene a summit of African leaders as Obama did in 2014, as well as improve communication with the continent, including, perhaps, by establishing a formal mechanism for consulting the African diaspora in Washington.
In other words, he will show much greater respect for Africa.
When it comes to more concrete policy, the picture is less clear. Agoa, which grants non-reciprocal access to the US market for most African exports, comes up for review in 2025.
Arnold believes a second Trump administration would have let it lapse and focused instead on reciprocal bilateral free trade agreements, such as the one with Kenya that is being negotiated. He believes Biden would instead be sympathetic to extending Agoa once again.
SA could also benefit from Biden’s likely enhancement of existing US economic programmes, such as Obama’s Power Africa – to increase electricity production on the continent – and the BUILD (Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development) Act which doubled – to $60bn – the ceiling of private sector infrastructure projects the US government could guarantee in developing countries.
And America’s massive support for African healthcare, including the fight against Aids, will likely increase.
But critics of US Africa policy are demanding more. They say Biden should not simply hit the reset button to restore relations with Africa to what they were under Obama. That was not enough, many say, and the US needs to do more to help build the continent’s economies – as China has.
Instead of just strategic competition with China in Africa, the US should cooperate with it to boost the continent, they say.
And a Biden administration should reverse the Trump administration’s blockage of UN financial support to the African Union’s peacekeeping efforts on the continent.