Trump plans big cuts in US foreign aid, diplomacy
US President Donald Trump is reportedly planning massive cuts to the US foreign aid programme to free up funds for his proposed $54 billion increase in defence spending.
Although the administration has not submitted its official budget request for the next fiscal year, sources close to the White House revealed that Trump plans a 37% reduction in funding for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
For the current fiscal year, the State Department/USAID budget stands at about $50 billion. A reduction of the size that Trump is said to be considering could not happen without staff cuts and reduced foreign aid payments.
Foreign aid never has been popular with the American public, except during humanitarian crises such as the Asia tsunami of 2004 or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Tapping into growing populist trends, Trump campaigned on a theme of “America First”, opposing deep international engagement and pledging to make the immediate interests of the United States his priority.
Trump has uttered no more than a few words about foreign economic assistance and his transition team did not visit USAID, leading observers to wonder whether the agency is on Trump’s radar screen. Senior USAID officials who were appointed by former president Barack Obama left their jobs by January 20th without having an opportunity to brief the new administration.
USAID manages more than $20 billion in development and economic aid projects and maintains more than 60 offices abroad. A substantial portion of US economic aid is allocated for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The State Department said that in fiscal year 2015 the United States budgeted more than $1.6 billion in economic and development aid to MENA entities, including $360 million to Jordan, $370 million to the West Bank and Gaza and $200 million to Egypt. Another $367 million was allocated for region-wide development initiatives.
Various MENA countries also benefited from global USAID programmes supporting public health, education, agriculture, family planning, women’s issues and water security.
Despite the unpopularity of foreign aid among the public, USAID has impressive bipartisan support. President George W. Bush dramatically increased US assistance to fight HIV and AIDS in Africa — an initiative that was widely lauded and has proven successful.
Indeed, pushback against large cuts to foreign aid and diplomacy has started. US Senator Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, said a proposal for such reductions would be “dead on arrival” in Congress.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said he doubted cuts of such magnitude would be accepted by Congress, which has the final word on government spending (the president’s annual budget is merely a recommendation). Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, tweeted: “Foreign aid is not charity… and is critical to our national security.”
Some, however, expressed concern that bipartisan support for economic and development aid may erode under Trump. Aid professionals in Washington said they fear he may abolish USAID, shrinking its activities and rolling them into the State Department.
Blair Glencorse, founder of a non-governmental organisation that works closely with USAID on development projects, told Devex, a platform for the global development community, that Trump’s election was “deeply troubling” for the community.
“It is going to be a very, very difficult period for American development efforts around the world,” Glencorse said. “Trump has repeatedly indicated he’d rather spend on domestic infrastructure than foreign aid and has demonstrated very little knowledge of poverty reduction and governance efforts. So I think we’re looking at a deeply unhappy aid bureaucracy and an America that moves away from aid.”
Trump’s proposed cuts to foreign aid and diplomacy also signal a reduced emphasis on so-called soft power in favour of a more muscular, military-led foreign policy. Ultimately, this could reduce the influence of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who already has been sidelined from several key foreign policy initiatives by the administration.
Four prominent Democratic senators on March 8th sent a letter to Tillerson warning that “the Department of State is experiencing significant management challenges, being cut out of important administration foreign policy decisions, and facing potentially devastating budget cuts.” They added that the department’s stature is being “severely eroded”, which could have consequences for US foreign policy.
Ultimately, support for maintaining a robust diplomatic and foreign aid budget could come from an unlikely source: In March 2013, US Secretary of Defense John Mattis — at the time a Marine general — testified before Congress in support of funding for the State Department. “If you don’t fund the State Department fully,” Mattis said, “I will need to buy more ammunition.”