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Under Donald Trump, the U.S. is slashing foreign aid and shifting its priorities to security above all else. Mark MacKinnon and Geoffrey York explore how that could be good for autocrats and bad for human rights in two conflict-ridden regions

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to Navy and shipyard personnel aboard nuclear aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Va., on March 2, 2017.

From his earliest days on the campaign trail, U.S. President Donald Trump proclaimed his contempt for what he dismissed as "nation-building." In his first speech as President, he vowed never to "impose our way of life" on any country. And in his first speech to Congress, he declared that all countries have a right to "chart their own path."

Today, the world is getting its first glimpse of the consequences of this isolationist ideology. The Trump administration has signalled the new U.S. priorities: cuts to foreign aid, cuts to United Nations programs, apathy toward global human rights and democracy, a focus on security above all else and a general retreat from the world stage.

With the sole exception of the fight against Islamic extremism, Mr. Trump has shown no interest in the inner workings of other countries. It's a policy that will provide comfort to autocrats and authoritarian regimes around the world. And it spells bad news for embattled democrats and human-rights defenders, from Russia and Ukraine to Egypt and Rwanda.

"From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first," Mr. Trump said in his inauguration speech. "It is the right of all nations to put their own interests first."

His first executive orders, along with the first leaks of his budget plans, have confirmed the new direction. He has announced a halt to $600-million (U.S.) in support for international family-planning programs. He has proposed a drastic 37-per-cent cut in the $50-billion budget of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He has attempted to block refugees from six Muslim-majority countries, and his aides have reportedly drafted an order that would impose a 40-per-cent cut in UN peacekeeping missions, the UN Population Fund and other UN programs.

The threat to the U.S. diplomatic and aid agencies has become so severe that it triggered a letter by more than 120 retired U.S. generals and admirals, pleading for the protection of these civilian agencies and their "critical" role in preventing conflict. "Now is not the time to retreat," they said.

On human rights, the State Department has fallen largely silent. When it released its annual Human Rights Report this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson broke from the department's tradition by not personally presenting the report. Nor did anyone from his department go on camera to explain it. It was widely seen as a signal that human rights are relatively unimportant to the new administration.

The Globe and Mail takes a closer look at the situation in two key places – Ukraine and Africa – to see how the Trump ideology could weaken the battle for democracy and human rights.

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American foreign aid, by the numbers

Graphics by Murat Yükselir

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In Mariupol, the soft-power struggle with Russia faces a hard reckoning

by Mark MacKinnon in Mariupol, Ukraine

Diana Berg, an activist in Mariupol, is worried that her USAID-financed project could be stopped because of the Trump administration’s policy toward Ukraine and Russia.

The shooting war in Ukraine – a conflict that has killed nearly 10,000 people to date – turns three years old this spring. But the subtler struggle for the country has been going on far longer, since the fall of the Soviet Union 25 years ago.

The other battle pits a Russia trying to reassert its dominance over a neighbour it has never truly seen as independent against a burgeoning Ukrainian nationalist movement that has long been aided by Western governments led by the United States.

One of the main battlefields in this other war is Mariupol, a strategically located port city that has long been a bastion of pro-Russian sentiment, but which has seen its culture slowly changed by human-rights and democracy-promotion programs funded by the United States and other Western governments.

Those gains would be under threat if Mr. Trump slashes the budget of the State Department – which funds the massive U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID – in order to pay for his planned 10-per-cent increase in military spending.

"Of course, we're all worried, we're worried a lot … we're not sure what direction they will take, whether the help they provide will stay the same or not," said Diana Berg, the founder of Tyu, an arts centre and LGBT safe space in Mariupol that Ms. Berg says received two grants worth a total of $120,000 (U.S.) from USAID in 2015 and 2016.

USAID says it has spent $1.9-billion (U.S.) in Ukraine since 1992. Figures for 2015 suggest that nearly a fifth of that money ($21-million of a total $116-million spent in Ukraine that year) went to went to "democracy and governance" projects.

The long-term effects of that soft-power outlay were made plain in a pair of revolutions – in 2004 and 2014 – that saw Ukrainians rise up to overthrow governments seen as too deferential to Moscow. Western-funded non-governmental organizations played key roles mobilizing the population during both revolts.

The latter uprising, which ousted the Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency, helped ignite the ongoing war; Russia responded within days by sending troops into Crimea and providing support to the separatist militias in Donetsk and Lugansk, a region collectively known as the Donbass.

Those areas, like Mariupol, are Russian-speaking, and have long been pro-Moscow in their outlook. While the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country has sought for decades to break free from Kremlin dominance – and dreams of eventually joining the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – voters in and around Mariupol have historically backed politicians such as Mr. Yanukovych, and favoured closer ties with their former Soviet kin.

Mariupol residents say the angry divisions of those days have faded over the past three years, as support for Russia has ebbed and a sense of Ukrainian identity has grown. Much of that shift can be attributed to revulsion at the war, and Russia's role in fuelling it, but U.S. soft power has also played a significant role.

"I think the percentage of people who support … Russia, the separatists, is less and less every year," said Julia Didenko, a Mariupol-based journalist. "It's hard to find someone who will say, 'I support Russia,' or 'Donbass should be independent.'"

Ms. Didenko works in the local office of Hromadske, a television station that receives money from both USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy – a separate agency funded by the U.S. Congress – as well as other foreign donors, including the Canadian Embassy in Kiev and the International Renaissance Foundation of U.S. billionaire George Soros.

There are USAID stickers on the office chairs in Hromadske's small Mariupol bureau, but Ms. Didenko says the channel's funding doesn't influence its journalism. "I don't have any extra editors form USAID or from the Canadian Embassy," she says.

Ms. Didenko says the money allows reporters to produce journalism that isn't subject to the whims of Ukraine's powerful oligarchs, who control most other media outlets in the country. "We couldn't survive in Ukrainian media without this [foreign] help."

That praise for USAID and other forms of Western help is echoed at Tyu, a hangar-like art centre that is almost unique in eastern Ukraine in catering its programming to the local LGBT community. Like the Hromadske office, Tyu's exhibition space is decorated with USAID stickers.

It's clear that Tyu's message of tolerance – and perhaps its co-operation with USAID – has made it a target for extremists in the city. In December, someone painted a large swastika on the side of the centre, alongside the words "against LGBT."

Graffiti, including a swastika, mars the walls of Tyu.

But Ms. Berg says Tyu has been a success, contributing to changes she sees in the "entire mentality" of Mariupol over the past three years. (She says those changes have been aided by the arrival of some 70,000 internal refugees, many of them students from the city of Donetsk who are now continuing their studies in Mariupol.)

"Of course there are people who still feel close to the Russian vector, because [Donbass] is an industrial area and there's more nostalgia here for the Soviet Union, which means having a certain mentality," she said. "But it's starting to change. I'd say the active part of society is visibly pro-Ukrainian and pro-European. People with other positions are less visible."

But there's fear among Ukrainian activists that Mr. Trump doesn't believe in soft power, or how effective it has been here. Or worse – as fighting again flares around Mariupol and the new White House remains muted in its criticism of Russia – that Mr. Trump and his new team don't care what happens to Ukraine, and are prepared to abandon the region to the Kremlin.

"If the U.S. now supports Russia, it's not a good sign for Ukraine," Ms. Berg said. "Everyone's worried about how Trump's victory will affect us."

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Trump's silence on human rights gives Africa's strongmen reasons to smile

by Geoffrey York in Johannesburg

A Chadian soldier raises his automatic weapon to have his picture taken by another soldier in the Nigerian city of Damasak on March 18, 2015, after the joint Chadian-Nigerian force flushed out Boko Haram militants. Combating Islamic extremism has overtaken all other priorities in Donald Trump’s foreign policy in Africa.

When he made his first phone calls to African presidents, Mr. Trump made his priorities clear. He talked about terrorism, security, stability and trade. There was not a word about human rights or democracy in the White House summaries of those calls.

When he spoke to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, he offered to sell him U.S. military aircraft to attack Islamic militants. When he spoke to South African President Jacob Zuma, he urged Mr. Zuma to "collaborate on shared security interests, including the fight against terrorism" – even though South Africa has never suffered a single attack by Islamic radicals.

Those conversations last month were an early sign of why Mr. Trump has been welcomed by Africa's long-ruling autocrats.

Under the administration of former president Barack Obama, they had to endure the occasional critical word or arms embargo. Today, they have little to fear. The Trump administration's obsessive focus on Islamic terrorism will make it easier for them to survive. As long as they co-operate on security issues, they are unlikely to face any pressure from the United States.

The authoritarian leaders of Burundi and Uganda were among the first to congratulate Mr. Trump after his election victory. Even the long-time Zimbabwean ruler, Robert Mugabe, is pleased by Mr. Trump's nationalist agenda, which he sees as the mirror image of his own nationalism. "America for America, America for Americans – on that we agree," Mr. Mugabe told state television last month. He added: "Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans."

The Obama years were hardly a utopia for Africa. He disappointed many Africans with his hawkish policies, including a big increase in drone strikes on African targets.

But he did provide some support for African human-rights groups and aid programs, he spoke out against the detention and torture of political prisoners in some countries and he launched ambitious new initiatives on African health and electricity. His predecessor, former president George W. Bush, created a much-praised AIDS-relief fund that has saved thousands of lives in Africa.

Those programs are now in jeopardy. Mr. Trump's proposed 37-per-cent cut to the budgets of the U.S. State Department and USAID would disproportionally hurt Africa. Some recipients of USAID support in Africa are already privately voicing their worries that their budgets will be slashed.

Meanwhile, there have been long delays in filling the key Africa-related posts at the State Department and the National Security Council. The only senior official with any history of interest in Africa is the Secretary of State, former oil executive Rex Tillerson – but he has kept a low profile and seems largely sidelined from key decisions.

"Trump has exhibited no interest in Africa," said Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2009 to 2013.

"Nor have any of his closest White House advisers. Except for some campaign comments about Libya and Benghazi, the new president has made very few remarks about the continent."

Mr. Carson, writing for the African Arguments website, predicted that Mr. Trump will judge African countries by a new litmus test: whether they support U.S. security actions or not.

"We should probably expect a sharp drop-off in White House support for democracy and governance programs," Mr. Carson said. "His policies will almost certainly result in less spending on the promotion of political reform, democracy and the conduct of free and fair elections in Africa."

As the United States pulls back from its traditional soft-power role in Africa, it could leave the field empty for other powers, including China and Russia, to expand their influence.

But for countries such as Nigeria, the Trump era will create a new opportunity. If they can portray themselves as a bulwark against Islamic radicalism, they could tap into a new pipeline of U.S. weapons and military aid.

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