Foreign aid was slashed in the proposed 2019 federal budget the White House unveiled Monday, ushering in a debate about which countries are deserving, and which aren’t.
As expected, the new budget proposal is much like last year’s, featuring billions of dollars in cuts to foreign aid. Congress essentially ignored it last year and continued funding near previous levels.
This year, the Trump administration is threatening to link foreign assistance to support for the United States, measured largely by how countries vote in the United Nations.
President Trump, in his State of the Union address last month, asked Congress to pass laws requiring U.S. aid to go only to America’s “friends.” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in December said she was “taking names” of countries that voted in the General Assembly against the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Jamaica last week that the debate is about using the generosity of the American people to advance American values.
For decades, the State Department has been keeping track of which countries side with the United States at the United Nations, and numerous academic studies show at least a casual relationship between aid and votes. But rarely has the calculation been so blunt and so public as it is now.
“It’s fair to say that when the budget is presented, it will kick off a discussion in the executive branch and Congress about the right balance between friendship and foreign aid,” said Peter Yeo, vice president for public policy at the United Nations Foundation. “Do we only give foreign aid to friends? And how do we define friends? If we think only in terms of U.N. General Assembly votes, that’s a very narrow lens.”
The idea of linking U.S. assistance to U.N. votes has long held appeal, particularly in Republican and conservative circles.
It became policy during the Reagan administration, when the State Department started collecting statistics on U.N. votes, categorizing them in relation to U.S. positions — the same, opposite, abstained or absent.
In 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available, only Rwanda voted with the United States 100 percent of the time. Canada, Israel and Micronesia went along more than 90 percent of the time, and many small, Pacific islands also frequently sided with the United States. Among all countries, the average score was almost 55 percent. But that was a historic high. In 1988, the average was barely 15 percent.
Even more meaningful are the statistics on consensus votes, often made after prolonged negotiations on issues of importance to the United States. In 2016, it was 84 percent.
Perhaps the most plain-spoken example came in 1990, when Yemen along with Cuba voted against a Security Council resolution demanding that Iraq pull out of Kuwait and authorizing force if it did not. The United States had tried to pressure Yemen to vote with it, not because it needed its vote but because it wanted the vote to be as close to unanimous as possible.
Accounts vary, but in a 1991 article in Foreign Policy, the most contemporaneous version, then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III wrote a letter to Yemen’s ambassador warning, “That is the most expensive vote you have ever cast.” Soon afterward, the United States dropped virtually all of $70 million in aid, including canceling the Peace Corps program there.
The impact of such overt wielding of U.S. aid dollars is still a matter of debate for academics who have studied the phenomenon.
“There is indeed a correlation between how countries vote in the U.N. and how much aid they get,” said Erik Voeten, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. “Countries are very aware of this. But what we don’t know is if the United States gives aid to countries that are already friendly to it, or if it actually changes votes.”
The Heritage Foundation has long argued for more aid to be linked to U.N. votes that the United States considers important. Brett Schaefer, a Heritage scholar who has written on the issue several times, said not all votes are important and sometimes national interests are more significant in determining who gets aid. For example, Jordan, Afghanistan and Egypt are all important allies in fighting militants in the region, and all voted for the U.N. resolution in December condemning the United States for its Jerusalem decision.
“It’s a very important signal for the United States to send,” he said. “If it finds a particular vote in the U.N. General Assembly vital to the national interest, it should do all it can to exert leverage over countries so that it will have a successful outcome.”
The leverage is so great because U.S. foreign aid is so massive. It includes humanitarian aid during conflicts and after natural disasters, military aid and economic development, which includes pro-democracy programs. Cutting aid could make it more difficult to rally countries around U.S. goals and may push them toward rival donors such as China, whose foreign aid is increasing rapidly in the developing world.
“Pulling back our aid will result in a deficit of U.S. leadership and U.S. cultural influence,” said Jessica Trisko Darden of the American Enterprise Institute, who has studied voting patterns. “It’s not just dollars. It’s people on the ground running projects, interacting with people.”
A large number of countries could be vulnerable. Many of the countries known as the G77, a group of nonaligned nations that actually has 134 members, often vote opposite the United States. Many of them are not rich countries and receive U.S. aid.
Many organizations dedicated to humanitarian aid are concerned that tying aid to U.N. votes marks a return to Cold War thinking, when the main calculus was where a country stood on one issue. And for many countries, the rhetoric may not match the reality.
“Are we going to cut off military aid to Japan?” said Tom Hart, executive director of the anti-poverty group ONE, citing a country that voted against the U.S. position on the Jerusalem vote last year. “I don’t think so, in the middle of the North Korea crisis. Administrations from both parties have said humanitarian aid is not related to our political votes. I’d be alarmed if the administration were going back to the Cold War framework of giving assistance to those who are with us and not those who are against us.”
Foreign aid traditionally has strong bilateral support in Congress, and many nongovernmental organizations expect the same with the upcoming proposal.
“The president proposed cuts last year that were quickly and thoroughly ignored,” said an executive with a development aid organization, speaking anonymously to be frank about the prospects for large cuts to foreign aid. “I expect the same this year.”