That’s 0.05 percent of the total $2.2 trillion package. Traditionally, foreign aid makes up roughly 1 percent of the federal budget, with strong bipartisan support. Within the stimulus bill’s international assistance funding, about half of those funds are dedicated to protecting or evacuating U.S. diplomats and aid workers dealing with the coronavirus — crucial missions, to be sure. The other half addresses coronavirus impacts on refugees, migration and humanitarian crises worldwide.
This short shrift for diplomacy and development reinforces the narrative that the United States is not interested in leading a coordinated and cooperative effort to fight the virus and rebuild the world economy afterward. This approach has many shortcomings. Perhaps the most important is that it leaves a vacuum China is eager to fill.
“It’s compounding the errors of the last few weeks not to provide more resources for this,” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “If the leadership on this isn’t coming from the administration, it has to come from Congress, and it’s deeply concerning that it’s not.”
Two senior administration officials defended the U.S. government’s international response in a Thursday afternoon conference call. They noted (correctly) the United States is by far the largest humanitarian and health security donor, and they announced new commitments of $174 million in international assistance for coronavirus response, bringing the Trump administration’s total to $274 million before the stimulus bill comes into play.
“We will drive the global response to the novel coronavirus disease, even as we battle it on the home front,” said Bonnie Glick, deputy administrator at USAID.
But on Sunday, when President Trump was asked directly about international funding in the stimulus, he said, “No, no, not in the stimulus bill.” He added that the United States “probably will end up economically doing something for other countries” later on.
The president was responding to the statement of two retired military leaders, Adm. James Stavridis and Gen. Anthony Zinni, who co-chair the National Security Advisory Council of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, an advocacy organization for diplomacy and development. They called on legislators to beef up the stimulus bill with added funds to help people in other countries that aren’t prepared.
“No matter how successful we are in fighting the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic at home, we will never stop it unless we are also fighting it around the world,” their statement said. “If there is anything that we have seen in the last several weeks, it is that a deadly virus threat anywhere is a deadly threat everywhere.”
The Obama administration contemplated a much more international approach to the situation we currently face. A pandemic early-response playbook drafted by President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, but discarded by the Trump administration, was published Wednesday by Politico. It included an “international assistance and response checklist,” and it is based on the assumption that the U.S. government has both the mandate and capability to support outbreak and epidemic responses in other countries.
Foreign obligations must not come at the expense of the health and economic needs of Americans. But by leaving vulnerable populations to fend for themselves, we are sowing the seeds for instability, migration and extremism to expand. Also, we are failing to prevent the next pandemic after this one. And we are not saving enormous amounts of money, relatively speaking, by failing to properly address the underlying issues.
“The cost of baseline preparedness is estimated at only about a dollar per person per year—and building and sustaining preparedness need not be an open-ended donor commitment,” stated a November 2019 report on global health security compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It’s ridiculous that China can portray itself as the world’s savior on the coronavirus crisis after its initial mistakes contributed to the current dire situation. But that’s the risk we are running. If the United States doesn’t play a leadership role in the worldwide response now, there will be damaging consequences for our security and economy down the line.