MARRAKESH, Morocco—If you want to see the Trump effect in terms of America’s waning influence and a rising global distaste for the United States, which China and Russia are happy to exploit, come to the annual Atlantic Dialogues here, sponsored by staunch U.S. ally Mohammed VI, the king of Morocco.
“President Trump has turned his back on multilateralism, turned his back on numerous international accords, started a trade war with China and declared his hostility to several institutions that serve as the backbone of this liberal world order,” intones a video from the conference organizers, stunning for its bald-faced, unselfconscious attack on the current U.S. administration, in contrast to the more guarded and diplomatic criticism at past fora.
“How much of the Bretton Woods international order can Trump tear down in the next two years of his presidential term, or the coming six if he wins another term in 2020?” it goes on. “How can world leaders, international organizations and civil society overcome these nationalistic impulses?”
“I think it’s important to discuss among friends sincerely. People are worried,” says Karim El Aynaoui, managing director of the Policy Center for the New South, which runs the invite-only forum at the luxurious La Mamounia Hotel. “You can feel it, that we could have tomorrow a serious incident in the South China Sea… There is a certain level of anxiety around the world. Will reason prevail?... Rivalry is increasing in Africa… and we don’t have a very clear message about where this all will go.”
The Policy Center previously was known as the OCP Policy Center, renamed this month as a sort of declaration of independence, not just from the massive state-run phosphate company OCP, which still provides a lot of its funding, but also as part of a planned maturation process. The first five years of this forum were co-run by the German Marshall Fund, and the meetings had a more north-south feel, but now the think tank is focusing on Africa leading with its own solutions.
“We want this to be the place where the north meets the south in southern territory,” said El Aynaoui, adding that it mirrors Morocco’s move to rejoin the African Union last year.
The other goal was to knit Africa with Latin America, two continents that don’t know each other so well, he said. “We’re quite stubborn. These things, they don’t get built. We don’t have institutions like NATO,” that is, no South Atlantic Treaty Organization to tie the southern Atlantic cousins together.
Ironically, this is just the kind of maverick attitude the Trump administration has wanted to foster among countries it has felt have leaned too long and too hard on U.S. handouts. But the tone of the Trump administration has left a lot of bitterness, reflected in the young scholars who composed the videos for this meeting, which El Aynaoui said he didn’t censor, or even look at before the forum.
These young people reflect the rising youth bulge across Africa, with at least 70 percent of the population below the age of 30. They don’t remember the proxy battles between the U.S. and the Soviet Union across this continent, or the massive aid packages of yesteryear.
But they do remember whatever Trump’s last tweet was about international institutions like the World Bank or International Monetary Fund, or China, a country that has invested billions across this continent. And they also note how Trump tweeted that South Africa is “a crime ridden mess,” and that he’d asked his secretary of state to closely study “the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers”—a widely discredited claim.
This is how Trump’s tone is resonating in Africa, producing a resounding measure of disgust, painful resignation and a sincere hope for the eventual return to sanity in the U.S. of A.
The continent’s collective eyeroll is happening despite regional diplomats and military officials lauding many Trump policies—like providing steady military assistance, including withdrawing troops if the African country no longer wants them there, or at least, so visible. Moroccan diplomats are among the defenders, saying ignore the tweets; look at the work.
But how long can countries like Morocco or other African nations continue to embrace the U.S. publicly and cooperate with it closely, if their intellectuals and their wider populations are developing antibodies to American leadership?
“There’s only one country that believes in American exceptionalism, and that’s the United States,” said John Sawers, former head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, aka MI6, speaking on a panel dubbed “The Unmaking of the American World Order.”
“The rest of the world thinks of America as a big, powerful country,” he said, in an unsentimental analysis of a close ally. “The U.S.-led order, this network of alliances… is being replaced by great power rivalry... We’re going back from a world of multilateral institutions and rules shaping the world, to one where might is right.”
The Trump administration still thinks of itself as “right,” with U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton heralding a new Africa strategy just last week, while attacking both China and Russia for allegedly exploiting the continent.
“The nation of Zambia, for example, is currently in debt to China to the tune of $6 to $10 billion dollars,” he said at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “China is now poised to take over Zambia’s national power and utility company in order to collect on Zambia’s financial obligations.”
But Bolton also stressed, “Every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend will further U.S. priorities in the region.” That didn’t play well with this largely African audience. China and Russia are surely doing that too, but they don’t say it.
The newly appointed special envoy to the Great Lakes Region, J. Peter Pham, the only Trump administration official at the forum, pointed out that it took the first African-American President Barack Obama almost four years to come up with an Africa strategy, whereas Team Trump came up with one in just two years.
“This should put to rest the canard, which has been around for a year and a half, that the United States government is not interested in Africa,” said Pham, who also directs the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
He echoed Bolton’s critique of U.N. aid and security missions that go on for decades on end “with no objectives and no benchmarks against which they are measured.” Pham said the organizing principle for future aid and security assistance is going to be “focus resources where they can achieve the most verifiable good results.”
The tasks are too massive to fix with one-to-one aid, countered Joao Vale de Almeida, the European Union’s ambassador to the United Nations. He said multilateralist institutions bring more accountability. “We need the International Criminal Court to make people accountable towards global public opinion. There is nothing we can do… if you don’t have this system that brings actors, countries and people together to guarantee global good.”
While the Trump administration spends time publicly lecturing both multilateral institutions and African countries on what they’ve done wrong, China is seen as investing in African culture and success in a way that America isn’t, and they aren’t insulting Africa from the White House bully pulpit.
The World Economic Forum lauded China for becoming the top foreign investor in Africa since 2000, as part of Beijing’s government-funded Belt and Road Initiative to build a global trading network through infrastructure, but also through private Chinese investment, which has outpaced U.S. commercial firms.
U.S.-based research by institutions like Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies have similarly concluded that while China loaned some $95.5 billion between 2000 and 2015, the loans helped finance Africa’s serious infrastructure gap, a fact oft-repeated at the Moroccan forum.
“On a continent where over 600 million Africans have no access to electricity, 40 percent of the Chinese loans paid for power generation and transmission. Another 30 percent went to modernizing Africa’s crumbling transport infrastructure,” wrote Deborah Bräutigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative.
And while the Trump administration early on called for a time-out in its investment in Africa to re-evaluate how much was being lost to mismanagement and corruption, a process Pham says is still ongoing, China’s President Xi Jinping pledged another $60 billion in aid, investments and loans this fall. That matched an earlier 2015 Beijing pledge of the same amount that’s already been disbursed.
So, Bolton, Pham and others can argue until they are blue in the face that Africans are walking into an insidious trap, but many influencers like those at this forum are telling people, the Chinese come in peace to empower us, not to humiliate us as the U.S. president has done.
That said, not everyone has given up on America here.
Forum attendee Aminata Dominique Diouf, 28, of Senegal, spent a summer in Kansas with a pen pal when she was just 10. She described how she was mesmerized by a tractor that passed daily by her bedroom window. The American farmer noticed, and visited one day to tell her about his job. She remembers him calling it a “noble job” that would help her feed her people.
Eighteen years later, after studying agriculture in Canada and the U.S., she now runs a farm that grows mangoes and vegetables on almost 200 hectares (494 acres) of land, employing some 300 people. She said her workers often tell her they “would have gone to Europe” if she hadn’t provided them jobs. A local Senegalese official also attending the Moroccan forum offered her more land to expand her operation.
“In the street, I see a lot of people with their hand out, saying give me something to eat,” she said. “I say, make the food. Be a farmer.”
Her main investor now is Spanish, not American, but she remembers her time in America fondly, as does another young African woman who spent time in the United States.
“I want the American people to know that the world remains inspired by them, and we know they are going through a very rough time, and it’s because things were not done that should have been done to protect the most vulnerable in America, and those vulnerable people are now very angry,” said Nigerian human rights activist Hafsat Abiola, president of the advocacy nonprofit, Women in Africa.
She had studied at Harvard University, after her father Moshood Abiola was imprisoned by the military after winning the presidential election, and died there. Her mother, Kudirat Abiola, had stepped in to lead his party, but was gunned down on the day she was supposed to fly to Boston to see her daughter graduate.
In short, Abiola knows about sacrificing all for democracy. Citing the tough times of both the American Civil War and the civil rights movement, she said Americans know how to overcome, too. “They go insular, they look within, and then they come out again.”
In the meantime, she said the world will be “holding up the light that America has shared so generously” when it was strong, and the rest of the world needed defending. “I trust that the American people will come out of this way stronger than when they went in.”