Global Alex: Don’t Cut Foreign Aid, Increase It

Last week, President Trump gave his first Joint Address to Congress. Throughout the speech, he touched upon a variety of topics, including immigration, unemployment, terrorism, and healthcare, though his tribute to the wife of fallen Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens quickly became the most televised moment. During his tribute to Owens, a US Navy Special Operator who died in a recent raid in Yemen, Trump described him as a “warrior and hero,” garnering a lengthy round of applause from the audience.

Rather than debating about whether this tribute was politically motivated or discussing the raid itself (which Senator John McCain characterized as a failure), we should focus on the comments that immediately follow:

“I am sending Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the defense sequester — (applause) — and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history…”

This increase in national defense spending, “one of the largest in history,” would amount to $54 billion, a 10 percent increase in spending, according to one White House official. With a new Pentagon budget of $603 billion, $54 billion would have to be cut from elsewhere, given the Budget Control Act of 2011, which caps federal spending until 2021. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 allows for an additional $16 billion for “Overseas Contingency Operations,” though this isn’t particularly large given that one warship can go for more than $13 billion a piece.

So, where will this money come from? According to officials from the Trump administration, budget cuts will be aimed at domestic agencies, particularly the State Department and Environmental Protection Agency (see the last M&P blog post about budget cuts in the EPA) since Trump has promised not to make cuts to Medicaid, Social Security, or veteran benefits. Ultimately, the State Department and USAID, its development agency, could face 30 percent cuts. Currently, the State Department and USAID have an annual budget of $50 billion which is ~1% of the government’s budget.

It is likely that State Department cuts will be particularly targeted at foreign aid, which would result in major reductions of funding for development agencies such as the Peace Corps and USAID. The budget allocated for humanitarian aid for situations, such as the current famine in Somalia, could also be reduced; however, funds for military acts will reportedly remain untouched.

While Trump’s intention is to put “America first” and protect national security, these budget cuts will only have the opposite effect. State Department efforts, particularly its development programs, are designed to prevent conflicts from emerging. Funds help with capacity building, health clinics, economic development and more, ultimately creating stable environments where civil wars and terrorism may be less likely to thrive. Meanwhile, the Pentagon largely works to resolve crises that have already emerged.

Not surprisingly, the proposed cuts have received criticism from both sides of the aisle. For example, Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted: “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.”

Members of the Armed Forces, 120 three and four-star generals to be exact, also voiced their concerns with a letter to Congress, which states:

“We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone. The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

Perhaps Trump’s reasoning for these budget cuts can be understood by looking at a statement he made in July. When announcing his presidency, Trump declared that we should “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us” and to spend those funds on investments domestically. This statement is problematic for two reasons.

Firstly, Trump’s suggestion to stop aiding countries that “hate us” is immature and irresponsible. Though some countries may hold unfavorable opinions about the US, it is important to continue engaging with them. How else will we change their hearts and minds? This is especially true in humanitarian crises, where a government may not be keen on cooperating with the US, but it is still crucial we send aid whenever possible.

Secondly, it perpetuates this idea that the US government has a fixed amount of aid (think of the zero-sum game from ECON 101) and that for each $1 spent abroad, that is one less dollar that can be spent domestically. While the government does work with a fixed budget, this kind of argument works differently in reality, as we cannot ignore the fact that reallocating funds from one issue to another is both unrealistic and inefficient.

For example, when discussing refugees, some people argue that we should be focusing our money on veterans and homeless people rather than the refugees (especially due to an ugly rumor about President Obama taking $2.6M in funding from Veteran Affairs to give to Syrian refugees). In reality, there are large sums of money dedicated to both issues, and simply allocating all of the funds from refugee resettlement efforts, or foreign aid in general, will not magically fix systemic domestic issues.

Ultimately, hard power (i.e. military force) will always be an important aspect of national security, but Trump must continue to invest in soft power (i.e. diplomacy and development) as well. Though the payoff for soft power may not be as clear or immediate, the long term benefits of a more stable world are immense.

“If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis


Alex Melnik is a junior at the University of Southern California, majoring in International Relations and Urban Studies. As a Boren Scholar, he is spending this year in Indonesia studying the national language. Alex is passionate about social justice, diplomacy, and international development and has previously contributed to the Duke East Asian Nexus and Taiwan Business TOPICS. Through writing, he hopes to inspire other millennials to become more engaged with international affairs. He can be reached through his personal blog and is a new addition to our team here at Millennial & Political.

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