‘America First’ policy: Is the US scoring an own goal?

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CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 20: A delegates holds up signs that read "Make America First Again" during the opening of the third day of the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
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By Joel Okwemba

The entrenched relations that the United States has built in Africa since the independence of most African States has grown deeper over time – until the inauguration of President Donald Trump. It comes out clearly from a research (2017) that was done across the world by Pew Research Centre headlined “U.S. Image suffers as publics around the world question Trump’s leadership”. The quantitative result of the research showed that a median of just 22% has confidence in Trump to do the right thing on global affairs in contrast to 64% as median for Obama’s confidence level to direct global affairs in the right direction. Samples from some of the 37 nations surveyed are as follows (Trump gets higher marks than Obama in only two countries, Russia and Israel):

Country

Obama (%)

Trump (%)

Difference

Nigeria

63

58

-5

Jordan

14

9

-5

Tunisia

27

18

-9

Lebanon

36

15

-21

Tanzania

78

51

-27

Kenya

83

51

-32

Ghana

82

49

-33

South Africa

73

39

-34

Mexico

49

5

-44

Senegal

77

26

-51

Japan

78

24

-54

UK

79

22

-57

Canada

83

22

-61

South Korea

88

17

-71

Germany

86

11

-75

Russia

11

53

+42

Israel

49

56

+7

Among the notable reasons for the global deterioration of the image of the US are Trump’s policy stances on retreating from international trade agreements and climate change accords; barring entry into the US by people from certain Muslim-majority nations; backing away from the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran; President Trump’s character, described as “arrogant, intolerant and dangerous”. America’s favourable view is held due to the US popular culture seen more positively than the US as a country. Roughly two-thirds across the countries surveyed like American music, movies and television. However, a global median of 54% worry that the influx of US customs and ideas into their country is a bad thing. In greater detail, when asked whether American ideas and customs were good or bad in their countries, African countries responses were as follows:

Country

Bad

Good

South Africa

39

52

Nigeria

47

51

Kenya

48

47

Ghana

58

38

Senegal

55

38

Tanzania

71

27

Median

52

43

The America First policy implies dis-engagement from global agreements – so far withdrawals have been from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement (TPP) and the Paris Accord on Climate Change. African countries responded as shown below:

Country

Disapprove (%)

Approve (%)

South Africa

50

35

Kenya

65

32

Nigeria

64

32

Tanzania

63

30

Ghana

72

20

Senegal

78

14

Median

60

20

Global median

72

18

When asked whether the US and their country’s relations will improve over the next few years, get worse or stay about the same, the responses were quantified as follows:

Region

Get Better (%)

Stay About the Same (%)

Get Worse (%)

Africa

26

27

27

Asia-Pacific

17

41

38

Latin-America

15

46

32

Middle-East

11

35

33

Europe

8

51

37

In the same report, when Trump, Putin, Xi and Merkel are sampled across the 37 nations surveyed the results are as follows:

Name

Confidence (%)

No Confidence (%)

Don’t Know (%)

Angela Merkel

42

31

18

Xi Jinping

28

53

20

Vladimir Putin

27

59

11

Donald Trump

22

74

8

NB: President Xi and Chancellor Merkel are somewhat less well known than Trump and Putin. Roughly one-in five people worldwide do not offer an opinion about the Chinese and German leaders.

Across the globe and in Africa, Tanzania has the most favourable view of President Xi in doing the right thing regarding world affairs, followed by Nigeria, Senegal, Russia and the Philippines as shown:

Country

Donald Trump (%)

Xi Jinping (%)

Angela Merkel (%)

Vladimir Putin (%)

Nigeria

58

54

42

39

Kenya

51

44

41

33

Tanzania

51

66

60

51

Ghana

49

44

45

36

South Africa

39

40

38

33

Senegal

26

53

52

34

Russia

53

53

31

87

Philippines

69

53

50

54

Canada

22

30

66

19

GLOBAL MEDIAN

22

28

42

27

In view of these facts, China is gaining over the world in a snowballing fashion, beginning with Africa. The heavy investment made in China as evidenced in infrastructure, education and research and in culture are critical factors boosting her image, risks notwithstanding. With the intention to find markets for her excess industrial capacity and tap into the minerals and resources in underdeveloped hinterlands across the world taking advantage of the backlash against trade and immigration in the US and Europe. So far, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, France and Italy have publicly endorsed the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative where $50 billion (Sh5 trillion) has been invested between 2013 and 2017, and $500 billion (Sh50 trillion) expected to be poured into 62 countries between 2017 and 2022, according to Credit Suisse Group AG.

Unlike the US where the people are more favourable as opposed to the country, for China the opposite could be true. In a self-criticism article, Prof Qiao Xin Sheng notes that the Chinese are seen as a people with a nouveau riche mentality, that the Chinese officials are too stilted on diplomatic occasions, that the Chinese media does a poor job in disseminating the country’s views abroad and that Chinese people still lack self-confidence as citizens of an increasingly powerful nation. The favourable opinions of China as a country and a people need different approaches in various regions where they command some levels of influence. A lesson that should be noted by African countries in diplomatic engagements, in efforts to attract Foreign Direct Investments and boost the continent’s image abroad through soft-power as a viable instrument.

An advantage that could work for the image of African countries’ abroad is the diaspora Africans, African heritage, music and art, which is appreciated and liked though unheard of in other parts of the globe – it could be said the US is at the pit stop before the Chinese catch up. ^

Author is the Managing Director of the Centre for International and Security Affairs, a research and think-tank based in Nairobi, Kenya

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