Having been duly sworn in as the 45th President of the United States (POTUS), Donald Trump is set to profoundly change the nature of the highest office in the most powerful country in the world.
And, what he does (unfortunately) affects everyone in the world.
There continue to be a wide variety of different predictions on what will happen over the next 4 to 8 years: from greatness to the end of the world. But, it has been said by business guru Peter Drucker, “trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window”.
So, rather than fall into an act of hubris, a quick overview of the significance of what the January 20th inauguration might bring (based on historical precedents) and the effects that it might have on Rwanda should be considered.
The 45th POTUS is assuming the helm as both the most uniquely qualified and uniquely unqualified person for the office in modern times. Examples of his singularity abound, one being his foreign-born wife, the first in almost 200 years (the last foreign-born first lady was the wife of J.Q Adams in the 1830s).
Other more worrying “firsts” that are cited are that he is the first to be so polarizing (at least in recent times), though that should come as no surprise because of two things: he has been the most ‘hands on’ president-elect: constantly communicating his wishes (some might say micro-managing), and the most anti-press of any president-elect.
Some have criticized his lack of government experience or previous elected office prior to entering presidency, but these might be considered an asset rather than a liability. He is also probably one of the most recognized “brand names” since President Ronald Reagan (a former minor Hollywood star). So, far it is easy to see how he is quite different from previous presidents.
Democracy is designed to be the great equalizer (both the millionaires and the destitute have one vote), but the America system was not initially designed this way, universal suffrage was established only since the 1920 and some citizens who live in so-called territories still do not vote in national elections.
Canada, another great leader of liberal democracy, just to the north of the US, did not have it until 1960. Being a Canadian First Nations meant that my paternal grandfather never voted; my father could not vote for his elected leader until he was in his 20’s.
The result of universal suffrage in an age when the power of the social media has increased has meant that the newest POTUS is a product of the times: the reality TV star who can read public opinion and articulate his opinions, no matter how controversial, to a majority who will accept it.
In the 1980’s movie “Wall Street” the director, Oliver Stone, captured much of the nation’s feelings towards businessmen, the distinctions in ethics and the culture prevalent at various levels of society. The main protagonist, Gordon Gekko portrayed by Michael Douglas, is a lying and unethical businessman only interested in profit.
His most famous quote being his proclamation that “Greed is good.” On numerous occasions since the movie Trump has claimed that he was originally cast for the role (he has had various cameo roles in other movies), but decided not to take the role. He has repeated the infamous line from the movie various times over the years.
This pro-business attitude is also reflected in his choice of mostly very wealthy friends and acquaintances to fill positions in his cabinet (along with close family members and friends, almost a “kitchen cabinet”). It is looking very pro-business, as long as it is American businesses.
Similar to the Harding administration in the early 1920’s (and, that ended in scandal). Another historical president who has been compared to the incoming president, (obsessed with secrecy, issues with racism, thin-skinned to criticism, and who also had a close “kitchen cabinet”) was Nixon who resigned from the office in disgrace.
Before getting too worried about negative change, keep in mind the excitement that Barack Obama, the 44th president, brought to this region in 2008 when he was first elected. With a Kenyan father and a large extended family still living in Kenya there was a lot of hope that there would be more interest focused on the region where half of his heritage originated, and where he had travelled.
The word that many Kenyans would use to describe the last president might be ‘disappointment’. Mostly ignored, the entire region remained unknown to most US policy makers and the press, except for human or natural disasters.
That attitude is beginning to change as the economies in the region grow and become more important in the world. But those countries in the G7 and beyond will not pay African nations closer attention until there is a major shift in perceive economic or security benefits.
One of the main lessons for this region (and, indeed the entire world) is that the office of the president of the US is separate from the person of POTUS. Therefore, policies that are already in place are likely to remain in place.
And, since the end of the election the rhetoric of those who are campaigning to become president changes after the inauguration. This is due to the detailed, classified information that is disseminated by the intelligence community to the president elect: it was noticeable with Obama and it is turning out to be the same with Trump (perhaps more-so now with Trump).
The view of the world of the candidate is not always compatible with the realities of wielding power.
Clearly Rwanda will continue to gain importance in the rest of the world as the economy continues to expand, and the leadership continues along the same path that it has chosen. This does not mean that the foreign policy of the United States is something that Rwandans should ignore, because with a superpower as strong as America is today, there needs to flexibility in other countries and the ability to move with changes so that they best fit into the reality of the situation.
There are now three superpowers, with Russia and China: and these are similar to the Nixon era of China, the Soviets (though it does not appear that either of Trump`s proposed National Security Advisor nor Secretary of State have backgrounds even remotely resembling Kissinger`s abilities at this time).
The reason that Rwandans need to pay close attention to the incoming administration is that the effects of decisions, both good and bad, will potentially have profound ripple effects on this part of the world.
The writer is a Canadian scholar who has conducted regular visits to Rwanda and has given talks at the University of Rwanda and at the Kigali Independent University. Currently, he is an associate professor at Kobe Gakuin University in Japan