Released last week, President Trump’s proposed budget calls for a 29% decrease to the State Department and USAID’s collective funding and directs the State Department to reduce contributions to the UN by over 50%. This $10.9 billion in cuts, along with cuts elsewhere, will help fund a $54 billion increase in defense spending even as the US spends more on its military than the next seven countries combined. The administration has branded the proposal as the “America First” budget, but this logic is based on two primary misconceptions. First, it is impossible to argue that American foreign policy does not already put America first. Second, it is not the case that there are direct tradeoffs between advancing American interests and helping people abroad. On both counts, this budget would push American foreign policy in the wrong direction.
President Trump has frequently promised to finally put Americans first again, but the implication that the country’s leaders do not already do this has no factual basis. Foreign aid constitutes less than one percent of the federal budget, and contributions to the UN form just 0.2% of the budget. Still, that President Trump’s message gained an audience was not a surprise. The average American believes the US spends 26% of the federal budget on foreign aid and 56% of Americans think the US spends too much on aid. When told the real figures, however, only 28% still think the US is overspending. In other aspects of American foreign policy, American interests also come first. The UN reserves a Security Council seat and veto for the US, the US enjoys disproportionate voting power in the World Bank and IMF, and the death toll of American soldiers abroad never comes close to matching civilian deaths in the countries in which the US fights.
Still, President Trump’s proposed budget harms both American interests and people abroad. Though now threatened by proposed 29% cuts, the State Department has played a key role in American foreign policy, enabling diplomacy that promotes peaceful solutions to international problems. When military action is prioritized over diplomacy, the lives of American soldiers and foreign civilians are both put at risk. Gutting the State Department and concentrating further policymaking power in the Department of Defense will make American foreign policy increasingly monodimensional, presenting only a military response to every challenge. Not only does this change encourage misadventures, such as Iraq, but many global challenges that end up affecting the US, such as democratization, the root causes of violent extremism, or pandemics like Ebola, simply do not have a military solution. People abroad will be severely threatened by these cuts, especially considering that the vast majority of deaths from Ebola and terrorism have come in poor countries.
Cuts to USAID will similarly harm both Americans and those abroad. Foreign aid is typically understood as serving the interests of those abroad and it certainly benefits many of the world’s most vulnerable people. The US program PEPFAR provides life-saving treatment for HIV/AIDS to millions, the U.S. has played a key role reducing malaria worldwide, and American vaccination programs have helped contribute to a 99% reduction in polio cases since 1988. American aid also fuels infrastructure projects that contribute to long-term development. For example, since its launch in 2013, Power Africa has significantly expanded access to electricity. To be sure, aid is not without flaws and could be improved. However, aid is increasingly subjected to rigorous evaluation, and budget cuts will only leave vulnerable people in the lurch. Further, it would be a mistake to neglect the benefits foreign aid provides for Americans. Development abroad creates new trading partners for the US and generates a high return on investment. Foreign aid helps create the healthy and educated populations needed to this develop, in addition to generating goodwill towards the US. A perfect example of US aid at work is South Korea. Only 60 years ago South Korea was an impoverished country receiving large sums of aid, but now it is the United States’ sixth-largest trading partner and provides economic benefits far outweighing past aid.
Cuts to the UN will, once again, harm both vulnerable people overseas and American interests. The UN forms the core of the international humanitarian system, and massive cuts to UN funding would come just as 20 million people in four countries are at risk of famine and the world is facing its largest ever refugee crisis. Especially as the UN’s World Food Program is an incredibly important actor in responding to famine, quite literally these cuts would mean that people would starve to death. Further, UN peacekeeping forces would be threatened by these cuts. Deployed in 16 countries, peacekeeping forces rely on member states to contribute both funds and soldiers. Through providing these peacekeeping forces and by offering a forum for diplomatic solutions to avert conflict, the UN contributes to a more peaceful world. Allowing conflicts to proliferate undoubtedly harms those whose home countries explode into violence, but it is also the case that the US cannot close itself off from these conflicts. Conflict produces refugees that will seek to enter the US and its allies and provides a platform for violent actors to grow and potentially threaten the US. In addition, US negligence of its UN dues will damage its legitimacy. Not only might the US lose its General Assembly vote due to unpaid contributions, other countries will be reluctant to contribute their share of the burden and may neglect their own funding responsibilities if they see the US doing so. Additionally, if the US ever does need to gather allies to address a foreign policy challenge, they will be more reluctant to join if the US turns its back on multilateral institutions.
There is so much wrong with the foreign policy proposed in President Trump’s budget and I certainly hope our Senators, Pat Toomey and Bob Casey, and Representative Bob Brady will oppose all cuts to diplomacy, development aid, and the UN. I think we can take two broader lessons from this budget, however.
First, the US simply cannot wall itself off from the world. The world is far too interconnected and complex to expect a strong military to solve every problem, and promoting a peaceful, prosperous world will benefit both Americans and humanity as a whole.
But second, although domestic policy often dominates the news, we should recognize that the US is so powerful that some of the people that most depend on American policies are not Americans. To give an example, deservedly, much has been made of the worrying estimate that the proposed Obamacare replacement bill would leave 24 million more people uninsured. But far fewer have focused on the fact that millions and millions of people abroad depend on American and UN aid for their health care. Were this aid cut, they would be in even worse shape than Americans losing health insurance. In getting so much for less than 1% of the federal budget, it’s hard to argue that we’re wasting our money.
Featured image courtesy of artnet news.