“We will examine what is working, what is not working, and whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart,” Trump said in his 2018 UNGA speech. “Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.”
The White House and Congress have been battling over foreign aid ever since Trump took office. The White House’s annual budgets, which propose slashing diplomacy and foreign aid funding, have been repeatedly rejected by Congress on a bipartisan basis. Just last month, the White House eventually backed down from trying to rescind up to $4 billion of foreign aid, in the face of congressional outrage.
Now, the White House has prepared a draft National Security Presidential Memorandum, which I obtained, that would — if implemented — completely reshape U.S. foreign aid to become a tool of this administration’s agenda and an ineffective one at that. First reported by Politico, the document is entitled “Realigning Foreign Assistance for a New Era of Great Power Competition.” It claims decades of U.S. foreign aid policy designed to combat communism and terrorism have failed.
For example, the proposal calls to “end foreign assistance programs designed to address the supposed socioeconomic causes of terrorism,” claiming they “have made little lasting progress.”
Set aside the logical incoherence for a moment: Foreign aid was never intended to completely solve terrorism. Does anyone really think eliminating aid to countries where extremism seeks recruits will make that problem better?
The White House proposal also states, “Aid recipients should support key United States political and security objectives.” This is an expansion of former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley’s idea to punish countries that oppose controversial Trump administration policies, such as moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Using aid as punishment for political disloyalty sounds tough but practically makes no sense. The United States gives billions in aid to countries such as Egypt and Jordan, both of whom voted against the United States on the Jerusalem issue. Is their stability less important than that one vote?
The document’s worst idea is to “redirect, reconfigure, reduce, or eliminate foreign assistance that is supporting governments and non-state actors under the strong influence of United States competitors and adversaries.” This is part of the section titled “Win the Great Power Competition.” This is actually a recipe for losing that competition.
The United States is competing in the international arena primarily with China, which is spending trillions of dollars to buy influence in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. The White House strategy suggests that as China expands, the United States should retreat. That would imperil the economic and national security of those countries as well as ours.
Cutting aid to countries that don’t fully support U.S. policy is penny-wise, pound-foolish. Problems such as terrorism, global health and climate change know no borders. Will the United States really cut Ebola assistance to African countries that do business with China? We fight Ebola over there so we won’t have to fight it here at home later on.
The White House proposal is littered with disdain for multilateral institutions and emphasis on supporting U.S. economic interests, such as energy exportation. It also contains calls for shifting foreign assistance to the private sector and nods to certain officials’ pet projects, such as Ivanka Trump’s focus on women’s economic empowerment. Bureaucratically, it would place the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget in charge of foreign assistance, relegating the State Department and United States Agency for International Development to subservient roles.
Several development and aid experts told me that though the issues the White House is trying to grapple with are legitimate, the policies contained in the proposal are mostly bad ideas based on broad misunderstandings of how foreign assistance works.
“We desperately need a new bipartisan consensus on how do we use our soft power for our great power competition,” said Daniel Runde, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “However, there are real concerns about this proposal’s assumptions and about how the process played out.”
When Trump stands before the U.N. General Assembly again next week, he might again threaten to use foreign aid as a political weapon rather than as a tool of soft power and a demonstration of the generosity of the American people. If he were to actually sign and implement this proposal, he would only further undermine America’s influence and, by extension, weaken the security of both the United States and the world.