Up until the news dropped in February that the Trump administration plans to boost military spending by $54 billion and make cuts of up to 40 percent to foreign aid, the international development community was in overdrive to put its work in the best light. Development experts had been making the case for foreign assistance in terms that they hoped would resonate with the Trump administration—which on the diplomatic and development side consists of only one appointee, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Some tried quoting Ronald Reagan to make their case: “Our national interests are inextricably tied to the security and development of our friends and allies.” Others argued that to “Make America Great Again” would require renewed investments in Africa through new energy projects and expanded investment opportunities to help shape the United States’ future markets. And in The New York Times, former Republican Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) pushed to maintain support for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, insisting that buttressing weak states by combating AIDS is “a key element of America’s national security strategy.”
A number of development experts had taken solace in the fact that the same memo appointing White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon to the National Security Council also listed the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, administrator as a standing member of the council’s Deputies Committee.
No one can blame the development community for trying to put on a brave face as it waited with mounting anxiety for the administration to signal its intentions on the development front. But trying to talk sense to the Trump administration on development was always going to be a steep hill to climb, and traditional logic has been limited in the administration’s decision-making.
What no one wanted to say is now increasingly obvious: The U.S. commitment to international development may be facing an extinction-level event through a combination of draconian policies, shattering budget cuts, and the potential for the president to use aid as his own “walking-around fund” designed to drive short-term political gains rather than long-term development goals.
Early signs of trouble
The early signs were unmistakable as some of the Trump administration’s first actions in office seemed designed to inflict maximum pain on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Trump’s first botched executive order on refugees imposed a temporary ban on the United States accepting even a small, heavily vetted fraction of people from around the globe who have been displaced by the cruel winds of war, conflict, and repression. The revised executive order just released renewed those restrictions. Another Trump executive order expanded the “Global Gag Rule” on international family planning programs far beyond the actions of any other Republican president, potentially cutting off at the knees a number of programs long championed by Republicans, including malaria prevention and combating HIV/AIDS.
And things are getting worse, starting with the first Trump administration budget. USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and other U.S. government development institutions are poorly positioned to fight the budget since President Donald Trump has not yet nominated any of their political appointees. Managing the proposed 37 percent budget cut would surely require major layoffs at both the U.S. Department of State and USAID if enacted.
Foreign aid and development at risk under the Trump administration
In addition to pumping up defense spending, the Trump budget will be heavy on tax cuts and pour money into infrastructure programs. There is no evidence that President Trump is uncomfortable with ballooning the deficit—he has gone bankrupt three times and has said, “I’m the king of debt, I love debt.” But Trump’s advisers, particularly Steve Bannon, recognize that there need to be some sacrificial lambs to make the administration look tough on accounting—thus, the chatter about getting rid of funding for National Public Radio, or NPR, and the National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA. It should come as no surprise that foreign assistance and diplomacy are lumped into the same category: Similar to NEA and NPR, foreign aid is a tiny part of the budget that most Americans think of as a huge.
Development assistance is vulnerable for other reasons as well. Over the past decade, a disproportionate percent of the aid budget has found safe harbor in the Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, account. More than one-quarter of U.S. foreign operations funding is now pulled from the OCO, mainly because this account has been treated as essentially off budget, allowing legislators to fund aid programs—and many other things such as support for Afghan security forces, Syria operations, and parts of the State Department budget—without having to admit that they were actually doing so. This process has protected some lawmakers from potential political backlash for funding programs unpopular with their constituents while still allowing them to behave as responsible internationalists.
However, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has long despised the entire OCO account, calling it a slush fund and saying that “it’s past time to do away” with it in its entirety. Far more of a budget hawk than President Trump, Mulvaney is likely looking for some real places to cut the budget as he is forced to swallow more outlays in areas such as infrastructure and health care than he would like. Foreign assistance presents a prime target.
But that does not mean Trump will not find things on which he would like to spend aid dollars. Given his apparent fondness for authoritarians, he may be tempted to shower largesse on strongmen abroad. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is not a poster child for good governance in the developing world, with his penchant for extrajudicial killings, but he does seem to be someone President Trump may see as worthy of American assistance. It is not hard to imagine Trump being excited about U.S. tax dollars underwriting an expanded anti-drug program in the Philippines despite the red flags too numerous to count.
A cold public reception for Trump’s plans
Congress, including many Republicans, reacted with anger to President Trump’s plans to gut America’s foreign aid program—a program that every Republican and Democratic president since World War II has supported. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) declared that Trump’s cuts would be “dead on arrival” in Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) stressed on Twitter that “Foreign Aid is not charity. We must make sure it is well spent, but it is less than 1% of budget & critical to our national security.” The ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (NY), called Trump’s plan “short-sighted and dangerous,” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said, “The diplomatic portion of the federal budget is very important and you get results a lot cheaper frequently than you do on the defense side.” He added that he would oppose cutting international development programs to the extent that Trump has proposed.
And outrage was not limited to Congress. More than 120 retired generals and admirals signed a joint letter in response to the proposed cuts, arguing:
We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone—from confronting violent extremist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa to preventing pandemics like Ebola and stabilizing weak and fragile states that can lead to greater instability. There are 65 million displaced people today, the most since World War II, with consequences including refugee flows that are threatening America’s strategic allies in Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Europe.
In short, Trump and Bannon seem to think that America will be more secure if it puts all its money into the military while drying up support for diplomacy and development, which only account for a small fraction of the budget. This approach might have a certain logic for those who have never dealt in international diplomacy or had to think of America’s—and the world’s—long-term interests. Just as diplomats help prevent wars, international development saves countless lives through immunization programs and combating highly infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola. And development programs assist the neediest victims of war, famine, and natural disasters. They also help promote stability, democracy, and the rule of law as a means of lifting families out of extreme poverty while developing new allies and trading partners for the United States.
Tremendous uncertainty remains around the fate of U.S. development programs under the Trump administration. As in many other areas, President Trump’s policy will likely be made up as he goes along and battled out among competing factions of advisers. What does seem certain, though, is that the U.S. development community is now in for its roughest ride since Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) tried to eliminate USAID in the mid-1990s. And not surprisingly, the Trump administration appears to be dusting off proposals much like Helms’s that would eliminate USAID and entirely merge it with the State Department. Given that Rex Tillerson appears to be the most marginalized secretary of state in memory, it is difficult to understand the logic of both slashing aid programs and giving him more management responsibilities. There is no sound reasoning to what Trump is trying to do. It is simply posturing—yet another knee-jerk reaction that runs sharply counter to America’s values and interest.
John Norris is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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Senior Fellow; Executive Director, Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative