Military Aid: Financing Foreign Conflict?

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As a concept, foreign aid has existed for centuries. One country helps another—usually to their mutual benefit. The Marshall Plan solidified foreign aid as policy in the United States. The idea was to bolster its war-ravaged allies in Europe against the rising tide of communism. In Fiscal Year 2017, the United States doled out roughly $50 billion in aid, assisting nearly every country.[1] The U.S. pursues a noble goal: To promote peace and prosperity and to give a helping hand to countries in need.

Sometimes that goal becomes obscured in light of the geopolitical conflicts in which the U.S. is commonly involved. During the American Revolutionary War, the French aided the fledgling United States because they opposed Great Britain.[2] For the French, aid was more of a weapon than a parcel of food or a life-saving vaccine.

Today, the U.S. provides a similar type of aid. Unlike the muskets and tents of the Revolutionary War, this aid is spent on U.S.-built military equipment. Since 1961 the Foreign Military Financing program has provided “grant assistance for the acquisition of U.S. defense equipment, services, and training.”[3] This program differs from Foreign Military Sales program in that Foreign Military Financing is grant assistance while Foreign Military Sales are purchased by the recipient countries.[4] The U.S. offers this type of aid to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and roughly 30 other countries. A cumulative $6.1 billion was spent on the program in 2018.[5] The same year, the U.S. spent 84% of it in the Middle East.[6]

U.S. Foreign Military Financing for 2017 (MSS Defence)

Of course, aid structured in this way seems to be straight forward: American arms manufacturers benefit while its allies receive equipment. The U.S. keeps the production lines moving and—hypothetically—gains influence. American allies get weapons. Could this deal be any better? A more salient question would be: Could this deal get any worse?

One objective of Foreign Military Financing is to further U.S. interests. The Department of State says, “These grants enable key allies and friends to improve their defense capabilities, and foster closer military relationships between the United States and recipient nations.”[7] But Foreign Military Financing fails these ends. Instead, this program has often resulted in heightened conflict, friction between the U.S. and recipient governments, and missed opportunities for improving human rights and furthering U.S. interests.

Countries that receive Foreign Military Financing are less likely to work with the U.S. in its objectives. A study by Patricia Sullivan, Brock Tessman, and Xiaojun Li found that the more military aid a country receives, the more likely it is to be uncooperative with the United States. They stated, “There is a significant, negative correlation between levels of U.S. military aid and recipient state cooperation.” [8] Their reasoning was thus: Nations receiving military aid realized the U.S. needed them for geopolitical reasons. Using “reverse leverage” these countries could pursue their own agendas without fear of losing aid. And while there are other factors that determine whether or not a nation cooperates with the U.S., military aid “Appears to generate less cooperative behavior from recipient states overall.”[9]

Countries that receive Foreign Military Financing are less likely to work with the U.S. in its objectives.

Consider the case of Egypt. Egypt receives $1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing yearly, but the U.S. receives belligerence in return.[10] The Government Accountability Office documented that Egypt’s compliance with State Department monitoring has been, “incomplete and slow” for certain pieces of equipment.[11] This limits America’s ability to determine whether Egypt is using the equipment in compliance with end-user requirements and if the underlying goals of providing Foreign Military Financing to Egypt—regional stability and counterterrorism—are being met.[12] Unfortunately, some of Egypt’s internal policies directly contradict these goals. Their harsh treatment of political prisoners can lead to radicalization, further damaging American foreign policy and the objectives of Foreign Military Financing. As Middle East scholar Elliot Abrams stated, “If you take thousands of young men, toss them into prison, beat and torture them, incarcerate them for lengthy periods with actual jihadis, what comes out at the end of the process is in fact more jihadis.”[13] Policies that create more terrorism are hardly in line with U.S. objectives.

U.S. Foreign Military Financing (2014), Scaled According to the amount of Assistance Received (HowMuch.Net)

Thus, aiding states that do not cooperate with U.S. objectives can fail to quell violence in the recipient nation. In fact, Foreign Military Financing can lead to dissonance between recipient governments and their people. This dissonance has been proven to create more terrorism, not less.

A paper published by the Hoover Institution considered military aid to 106 countries. The authors found that “More U.S. military aid… is associated with poorer political-institutional conditions, which gives rise to grievances and anti-American terrorism in aid-receiving countries.”[14] The authors find military aid tends to corrupt governments, causing tension over poor governance which can lead to transnational terrorism. Seen as the supporter of the corrupt government, the United States is “Punished in the form of anti-American terrorism for the—ostensible or actual—facilitation of local grievances.”[15]

This effect is not limited to the Middle East. Columbia, for example, has received almost $850 million in Foreign Military Financing since 2000.[16] Research has shown in Columbia “increases in U.S. military aid increase paramilitary violence.”[17] The authors also stated that “our results suggest that…international military assistance can strengthen armed non-state actors.”[18] Thus, it may be that Foreign Military Financing both distances the U.S. from recipient governments and incentivizes non-state violence. 

But what is the alternative? While Foreign Military Financing seems to be contrary to U.S. interests, the alternative is hardly more appealing. Indeed, without Foreign Military Financing, the U.S. may cede geopolitical ground to adversaries like China and Russia.

An argument in favor of military aid is that it provides a way to preserve the U.S. edge in the global arms market. While the U.S.—with 36% of the global arms market—leads Russia by fifteen percentage points, supporters believe that Foreign Military Financing should continue to buttress that dominance.[19] As a former Pentagon official said, “when American industry is forced to abandon these markets, the gap is filled by Russian and Chinese companies, and their presence inhibits future American defense industrial partnerships.”[20] This argument is backed up with simple logic: If the U.S. ends military aid, many nations will turn to other, less scrupulous suppliers.

Arms transfers from Russia or China tend to have similar corrupting effects to U.S. military aid. A writer with the Oxford Research Group stated, “Chinese small arms have been implicated in ethnic violence and war crimes in Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”[21] Clearly China takes little care to ensure its arms are not used improperly. Russia has also demonstrated its willingness to support corrupt regimes with arms transfers.[22] An end to Foreign Military Financing would simply channel money to America’s geopolitical rivals and possibly worsen conditions in already turbulent areas.

A middle ground ought to be used to manage both Foreign Military Financing’s havoc and the consequences of its reform. If strengthening U.S. alliances is the program’s aim, it ought to be revised to truly do so. The U.S. should leverage its military aid to ensure that it does the maximum possible good.

One tool the U.S. already has in its arsenal are Leahy Laws. These laws can prevent Foreign Military Financing from going to “units of foreign security forces” who have been credibly implicated “in the commission of gross violations of human rights.”[23] While these laws are not perfect, they may serve as a first step in combating human rights violations.[24]

Beyond Leahy Laws, this leverage could involve withholding aid if the recipient government takes military actions that are not in America’s favor, creates diplomatic agreements contrary to U.S. interests, violates international law, or is involved in large-scale corruption.

But, would such leverage work? There are in fact countries where the U.S. has applied pressure and received positive returns. As Jess Hunter-Brown wrote, Leahy Laws have “coerced accountability for human rights abusers in Indonesia, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Bangladesh.”[25]

There have also been times when leverage has returned mixed results. Again, consider Egypt. After then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson withheld $195 million in Foreign Military Financing from Egypt in 2017, Secretary Mike Pompeo reversed his decision and released it in July of 2018.[26] Worse is the fact Egypt was making progress scaling back its repression of human rights. The Egyptian government was reevaluating its harsh regulations of non-government organizations and looking at retrying a 2013 jailing of 43 non-governmental organization workers.[27] Despite Secretary Pompeo’s decision, Egypt eventually acquitted the 43 individuals in December 2018.[28]

A member of the Jordanian SOF descends from a Jordanian UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at the Jordanian SOF compound near Zarqa, Jordan, June 13, 2013. Jordan is one of the major Foreign Military Financing recipients. (SSG Scott Griffin/U.S. Army Photo)

The U.S. should even use its leverage to vet closer allies. Israel, one of America’s closer in the Middle East, is rated by Freedom House as “Free”—a top-rated country in the Middle East-North Africa region.[29] But even their democracy is tainted with accusations of human rights violations. A 2016 letter from ten senators to then-Secretary of State John Kerry questioned whether Israel should be investigated for several extrajudicial killings.[30] In 2018, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, rejected increased scrutiny of Israeli military activities.[31] If the Israeli armed forces are innocent of human rights violations, Ambassador Friedman should have nothing to fear from further investigation. Either way, it would be beneficial for the U.S. to track its equipment and weapons—even to its allies—to ensure that they are being used ethically.

If the U.S. applies strict vetting requirements to military aid, there is some concern that China or Russia will take market share from the U.S. However, this concern may be rebutted in two ways. First, Foreign Military Financing would still come at no monetary cost to the country. Without it, foreign governments would likely have to spend their tax dollars to receive arms. Richard Sokolsky and Andrew Miller wrote that “neither Moscow nor Beijing offers grant assistance, which means they are not viable substitutes for countries that depend on U.S. financial help to buy equipment.”[32]

Second, U.S. military aid is technologically superior to Russian or Chinese arms in many ways. The U.S. commands a large lead in military technology. As Professor Jonathan Caverley said, “Clients join an American-dominated global supply chain in return for better value weapons, larger orders of subcomponents from local firms, and access to leading-edge weapons technology.”[33]

The U.S. should not be afraid to end aid to certain countries, even with the risk that one of its rivals would gain a foothold.

Finally, if the U.S. cannot leverage aid to achieve its goals, it should consider ceasing it. Foreign Military Financing has tangible negatives—reduced cooperation and increased transnational terrorism. These negatives can be avoided via aid cuts. The U.S. should not be afraid to end aid to certain countries, even with the risk that one of its rivals would gain a foothold. Just because aid recipients might hold reverse leverage does not mean the U.S. has none of its own. Such a cut would likely be net beneficial to an at-risk recipient.

While the aim of Foreign Military Financing may be to strengthen U.S. geopolitical alliances, it has also caused grated nerves and violent conflict. The alternative—Russian and Chinese arms transfers—is likely worse for the U.S. Ultimately, there is no ideal option, but leveraging aid to improve human rights or protect U.S. objectives is the least the U.S. can do for a world where weapons can fuel resentment and strife.

Jonathan Helton is a research assistant with John E. Talbott & Associates, a law firm in Henderson, Tennessee. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Law and Politics from Freed-Hardeman University.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Curt Tarnoff and Marian Lawson, “Foreign Aid: An Introduction to U.S. Programs and Policy,” April 25, 2018, Congressional Research Service, page 6,

[2] “French Alliance, French Assistance, and European Diplomacy during the American Revolution, 1778–1782,” Office of the Historian,

[3] U.S. Department of State, “Key Topics – Office of Security Assistance,”

[4] Defense Security Cooperation Agency, “Foreign Military Sales (FMS),”

[5] “Data,” Security Assistance Monitor,

[6] “Data,” Security Assistance Monitor, $5 billion is roughly 84% of $6.1 billion.

[7] U.S. Department of State, “Key Topics – Office of Security Assistance,”

[8] Sullivan et al., “US Military Aid and Recipient State Cooperation,” Foreign Policy Analysis, 2011, page 287,

[9] Ibid, page 291.

[10] “Data,” Security Assistance Monitor,

[11] “SECURITY ASSISTANCE: U.S. Government Should Strengthen End-Use Monitoring and Human Rights Vetting for Egypt,” Government Accountability Office, May 12, 2016,

[12] Jeremy Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service, March 12, 2019, pages 22-23,

[13] Elliot Abrams’ testimony to the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, “United States Assistance for Egypt,” Council on Foreign Relations, April 25, 2017, page 7,

[14] Eugen Dimant et al., “Negative Returns: U.S. Military Policy and Anti-American Terrorism,” Hoover Institution, September 2017, pages 12-13,

[15] Ibid, page 2.

[16] “Data,” Security Assistance Monitor,  ttps://

[17] Oeindrila Dube and Suresh Naidu, “Bases, Bullets And Ballots: The Effect Of U.S. Military Aid On Political Conflict In Colombia,” National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2014, page 3,

[18] Ibid, page 25

[19] Pieter D. Wezeman, Aude Fleurant, Alexandra Kuimova, Nan Tian and Siemon T. Wezeman, “TRENDS IN INTERNATIONAL ARMS TRANSFERS, 2018,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, March 2019, page 2,

[20] Benjamin Schwartz, “Strengthening the economy at home and U.S. military partnerships abroad,” The Hill, June 21, 2018,

[21] Earl Conteh-Morgan, “China's Arms Sales-in Africa,” Oxford Research Group, April 19, 2017,

[22] Samuel Ramani, “As the U.S. Disengages, Russia Ramps Up Aid and Arms Sales to Sub-Saharan Africa,” World Politics Review, March 29, 2018,

[23] “Leahy Fact Sheet,” U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, And Labor, March 9, 2018,

[24] You can read more regarding the debate around Leahy Laws here:

[25] Jess Hunter-Bowman, “To The People: Enhancing Leahy Law Human Rights Enforcement Through a Private Cause of Action,” Valparaiso University Law Review, Volume 51, Number 3, Spring 2017, page 849,

[26] Declan Walsh, “Despite Egypt’s Dismal Human Rights Record, U.S. Restores Military Aid,” New York Times, July 26, 2018,

[27] Andrew Miller, “Trump Blinks, and Egypt’s Sisi Wins,” Foreign Policy, August 10, 2018,

[28] Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” page 5.

[29] “Israel,” Freedom House,

[30] Letter from 10 Senators to Secretary of State John Kerry, February 17, 2016,

[31] Nahal Toosi, “Trump ambassador blocks scrutiny of Israel,” Politico, June 16, 2018,

[32] Richard Sokolsky and Andrew Miller, “What Has $49 Billion in Foreign Military Aid Bought Us? Not Much,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 27, 2018, F

[33] Jonathan Caverley, “America’s Arms Sales Policy: Security Abroad, Not Jobs At Home,” War on the Rocks, April 6, 2018,

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