Foreign Assistance in the Trump Era

Foreign Assistance in the Trump Era
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President Donald Trump has made it clear that foreign economic development is not a priority for this administration, and that foreign assistance should be used to reward or punish countries depending on their attitudes toward his priorities. “All of these nations that take our money and then they vote against us at the Security Council or they vote against us…at the Assembly…. Well, we’re watching those votes. Let them vote against us; we’ll save a lot.” An “America-first” foreign assistance policy may complicate strategic planning, but it need not make it impossible, and may even provide an opportunity to align the U.S. foreign assistance program more closely with national security interests.

In its first budget submission to Congress last year the Trump White House proposed severe cuts across the board; particularly gutted was the so-called “function 150 account” supporting international development and humanitarian assistance, and security assistance. Proposed cuts to the State Department and Foreign Operations exceeded 30 percent. Moreover, the White House proposed that the vast majority of foreign aid should be driven by diplomatic or political logic, rather than local development needs. Despite Congressional rejection of the 2018 proposal, the administration returned with more or less the same reductions and politicization this year in its 2019 budget proposal. 

Congress is again likely to reject the most draconian aspects of the White House proposal, but development professionals must accept that significant change is in the cards. The foreign assistance program, as it exists today, is an anachronism, like a history museum with legacy programs from a succession of past decades, and with vested interests protecting each legacy. With long-term budgetary austerity the inevitable consequence of recent budget-busting tax legislation, discretionary programs like foreign assistance will be under downward pressure for years to come. So, we should proceed from the assumption that the future program will be smaller; let’s get used to it, and start planning accordingly. The world is changing rapidly, and the foreign assistance program must adapt.

The first principle of the 21st century U.S. foreign assistance program should be in alignment with our national security goals. Both our national security and national military strategies prioritize the growing threats posed by Russia and China; foreign assistance programs ought first and foremost to contribute to mitigating those threats. We may or may not like the current national security and military strategies, but a foreign assistance strategy out of sync with them cannot succeed. Does a given program defend our national interests with respect to Russia or China? Georgia, Indonesia, Philippines, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Sri Lanka meet the national security test. But East Timor, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and many others do not.

Reflecting another Presidential priority, how does foreign assistance impact our chronic trade deficits? The President has made clear his view that our trade imbalance, now far exceeding half a trillion dollars a year, weakens the nation. Assistance programs should, therefore, be crafted to increase the ability of recipient countries to purchase American goods and services, including military goods and services. Our allies and partners want to buy American; let our economic development programs bring them the wealth they need to do so. Ukraine, and Nigeria, for example, have legitimate development needs, and both are good customers and would buy more if they could.

We should also consider how foreign assistance programs might help to relieve the immigration flows from countries in distress, whether from conflict, underdevelopment, or natural disaster into the United States? This is another Presidential priority. Which countries are exporting migrants to the United States, and how can foreign assistance help to reverse the incentives leading to those flows? Clearly, if El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala offered greater economic opportunity and security the incentives to head north would be less. Supporting development in those countries will reduce the pressure on our southern border.

Finally, foreign assistance can be used as both the carrot and the stick encouraging recipients to support broader U.S. foreign policy and national security goals. In most cases, the greater a country’s dependence on U.S. foreign assistance, the greater our influence. U.S. support for Jordan is critical to that country’s survival; in return for support the United States should be able to count on Jordan’s vote in the United Nations and other forums, at least most if not all of the time. Same with the Philippines and many others. When a recipient country systematically subverts U.S. national interests, as has often been the case with Pakistan, that should disqualify it from the benefits of a U.S. foreign assistance program.

If there is a single lesson to be learned from decades of experience in foreign assistance, it is that absent the security and stability provided by the rule of law, the efficacy of all assistance is ephemeral. When a country is chosen as a recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, any proposed program should be reviewed through the lens of its contribution to building and reinforcing the rule of law. Assistance to catalyze economic growth, education, public health, promote democracy, and even provide humanitarian relief will all be wasted in the chaos and unpredictability of corrupt and lawless societies.

A reordering of the foreign assistance program according to these principles or any similar set of principles, will encounter significant bureaucratic blowback. It will require far greater alignment and collaboration between governmental agencies than currently exists. The development agencies, particularly USAID, will squeal at the subordination of development goals to political and diplomatic goals, and its institutional subordination to the State and Defense Departments. The Defense Department will recoil at the resurrection of stabilization and other activities it views as “not inherently military” in nature. The State Department will wince at the requirement for increased “consultation” with the Defense Department.

An ”America-first” foreign assistance policy may not be the best way to foster economic and social advancement in developing countries. However, it does offer several advantages. Its self-selecting nature will lead to alignment with national security priorities. Recipient countries are likely to welcome assistance that brings them the wealth needed to buy more from the United States, and that keeps their youth safe and gainfully employed at home. Most importantly, such a foreign assistance policy is defensible in the current political climate.

The notion of “development for development’s sake,” is a quaint throwback to a now-distant past; in the immediate post-World War II and post-colonial periods, when the United States generated nearly 50% of global product, development for development’s sake may have made sense. Today, when the United States is struggling with a chronic current account as well as budget deficits, that sort of altruism is no longer affordable, and the U.S. taxpayer should not be required to pay for the altruistic sentiments of a few members of Congress. The Constitution of the United States requires that the government provide for the common defense; there is no such requirement to develop or provide assistance to the world.


Michael Miklaucic is a senior fellow at National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies, and the editor of  NDU's journal, PRISM. He has served in various positions at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of State, including chief operating officer for the USAID Office of Democracy and Governance, and rule of law specialist in the Center for Democracy and Governance. In 2002-2003, he served as the Department of State deputy for war crimes issues.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government.



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