American political studies courses in Africa: Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) and US domestic political dynamics.

By Siviwe Rikhotso


Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) is a heavy feature in international relations and political studies around the world. As with many other lenses of analysis in international relations, FPA also considers the foreign policies of the biggest players in the international scene, that the dominant powers, superpowers, and global hegemons. Among one of the most studied nations globally, US foreign policy has been of central importance for over three decades, emanating from its status as a cold war superpower to the global hegemon that reshaped the international order following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.

A large part of the analysis on US foreign policy has been centred on the heads of states and their domestic political alignment commonly divided between the democrats and the republican factions. Associated with democrat foreign policy leanings has been the prioritisation of democracy, human rights, peace and security, terrorism, and economics, and the republican foreign policy leaning taking shape in the opposite order of prioritisation.

However, simplifying US foreign policy according to just the domestic political inclinations limits the understanding of how policies are proposed, voted for or against, the and adopted with considerations to the political dynamics such as congress, senate, constituents, the constitution, powers of the president, and institutional make-up of the domestic political landscape.

It is fair to work under the assumption that even in the current changing world order from liberal hegemony under the unipolar system to the resurgence of mutlipolarity, US foreign policy still remains prominent for small, middle and rising powers because of the international legitimacy it has compared to its most prominent rivals such as the Russian Federation and China. This comparison between the US and Russia and China take nothing away from the latter two nations and the importance of their foreign policies towards the continent, seeing that they are increasing relations with the continent.

Similarly, for Africa, it becomes imperative for such an analysis to take place the deepest levels of the American political landscape considering that the US is still a major player on the continent, albeit with significant decline.

Moreover, FPA with a focus on how domestic policies and the political landscape not only broaden the understanding US foreign towards the continent as a unit and on bilateral relations between the superpower and African nations, it also makes for more efficient analysis of US stances on multilateral bodies such as the UN, WTO, ICC, and others.

In line with the argument for studying US domestic political landscape and dynamics, African intellectuals and scholars have contributed avid interest on drawing patterns on US foreign policies towards the continent in the instances of regime change in the US to account for policy continuation or change, especially with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the US in the 2016 elections. Such a watershed moment in American history, where ‘known brands but unknown politicians’ had policy implications for the rest of the world and Africa was no exception, seeing how many analyses on US foreign policy towards Africa described as ‘non-existent’.

It then begs the question, does Africa have contingent approaches to keep up with changes at the White House, because Trump’s brand of ‘American nationalism’ was serious reminder to the world that as a democracy, the US has the tendency morph its domestic political landscape and thus undergo a significant metamorphosis at the international arena. Currently, the US is again in the process of transformation from conservative introversion under Trump to liberal extroversion under the current leadership of Joe Biden.

Africa, being part of the extroverted US agenda, will again be tasked with the refining its approaches to engaging with the US, and this refinement is informed by intellectual and academic analysis of past patterns, deep knowledge on the domestic political landscapes and dynamics to account for any changes in foreign policy stances.

Thus, courses that would study US domestic political landscape and dynamics from constitutional makeup, federalism, state formation, congressional structure, campaigning and electioneering, powers of the presidency, role and influence of lobby and interests groups, roles and functions of state institutions and branches, societal and political divide, amongst others. Analysis of these and their influence on foreign policy formation in the US would help African intellectuals, scholars and policy makers make sense of unexpected foreign policy changes in the US.

The understanding that the US invests in academic study of the African continent in American universities has come to underscore the disparities in African-US relations especially when the former is accused of being a reactor rather than an actor in foreign policy relations.

Such activism from Africa requires African heads of states interested in engaging at a meaningful and mutually beneficial level with the US, invest in studying US domestic political dynamics and their relationship to foreign policy formulation. This further opens up avenues for comparative analysis of US and African domestic politics and the level at which domestic values and principles are enshrined in foreign policies and where there are similarities and impasses on values and principles.

Over the last two decades, US domestic politics, like many on the African continent, have shown signs and patterns of progress and regressions that influenced foreign policy formulation at various levels of engagement between African nations and the superpower. Moreover, an account of these signs and patterns helps better understand change and continuation in US foreign policy while allowing for improvements for future engagements between the US and the continent. FPA as a heavy feature in international relations analysis of relations between nations is instrumental for crafting new approaches and terms of engagements, and Africa-US relations are no exception. Africa needs a meaningful understanding of US domestic political dynamics and their role in US foreign policy formulation where the continent is concerned, and one of the avenues to achieving this is through introducing American studies courses to study US domestic political dynamics at university level.