Elephants in the Room
Development and Diplomacy Are Instruments of a ‘Peace through Strength’ Foreign Policy
Instead of making slash and burn cuts at State, a top-to-bottom review is needed.
President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress have a mandate for change in the foreign policy arena. The key is to channel that mandate to actions that will make us safer and more prosperous. Trump believes in a “peace through strength” foreign policy. Every Republican platform for the presidency since 1980 has included language about peace through strength. Our strength is not just our military power but our non-military power — which contributes to safety and prosperity.
Given all of the above, Trump has announced cuts in the 30 percent range for foreign assistance. Everyone who wants President Trump to succeed but who disagrees with these cuts is having a hard time saying that this is a mistake without sounding like part of the “resistance.” There are many influential Republican members of Congress that know this is a bad idea but will not to come out and openly criticize. Likewise, there are many qualified people in positions of responsibility in the administration who must think this is an error but are being good soldiers and keeping quiet. Many are hoping that the U.S. Congress will fix this (by reducing the cut to around 10 percent); a president “proposes” a budget, but Congress ultimately “disposes” — giving an administration the money to actually do things.
Foreign assistance is an important part of peace through strength. It supports allies and undermines adversaries. For example, we have used foreign assistance to help Ukraine and Georgia in response to Russian aggression. We have used not only military assistance but targeted foreign assistance to help Colombia defeat narco-terrorists and bring them to the bargaining table. We use foreign assistance to support the governments of Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt in a variety of ways to help them both confront radical Islamic terrorists and ameliorate the refugee crisis, the impact of which has greatly affected poorer countries in the region. We use foreign assistance to ensure that countries in Africa can defeat Boko Haram and al Shabab. We use foreign assistance to seek to defeat criminal gangs in Central America which are driving tens of thousands of people north to the U.S. border. All of these sorts of activities will be at risk because of the proposed budget.
I do not believe the Trump team wants to blow up the liberal international order. My reading of his various speeches and interviews is that the administration is asking questions and seeking adjustments in burden sharing among allies and partners — from defense to trade to the U.N. system to development banks. In the multilateral area, there are some things we need to pay for, as I have written elsewhere. At the same time, there are rich countries that hide behind being part of the G-77 club of “poor countries” so as to shirk on burden sharing. This is ridiculous and cannot go on. And frankly, the multilateral development banks need a complete rethink of their roles, given the changing world we live in and that of the near future.
There are certainly areas for cutting and there are areas to reallocate resources. There is easily 5-10 percent of the foreign assistance budget that could be cut without damaging America’s influence in the world or hurting allies. If we took a 3-4 year approach, the administration could reduce spending by as much as 15 percent by handing off responsibilities to host countries on certain specific programs, like say health assistance, without deeply hurting our influence and without doing harm to people we aim to help. But there’s a way to do this: it requires a top-to-bottom review, much like the Conservative government in Britain has done twice since 2010.
As Team Trump staffs up, I am betting they will hire very qualified foreign policy and national security experts. As that happens, the rhetoric coming out of the administration on the liberal international order will evolve in constructive ways. I would also speculate that world events will change the way that Team Trump thinks about the value of foreign assistance. Sadly, there inevitably will be some humanitarian emergency with geostrategic implications — a Typhoon Haiyan, say, where we helped hundreds of thousands and where we looked more generous than the Chinese, or a Southeast Asian tsunami that highlighted America’s generosity. Just as awful to contemplate but likely, is that there will be a pandemic outbreak of some funny-named disease like Ebola or Zika. Pandemics are a permanent part of modern life because of changes in diet (more animal husbandry), urbanization, and jet airplane travel.
Finally, we need to be careful about not “breaking” our foreign assistance capabilities the way we broke our public diplomacy capabilities with the merger of the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department. The world is a different place from that of 20 years ago and our assistance needs to reflect that changed world. A top-to-bottom review would help the administration identify areas to increase spending and where to reduce or exit. Change is necessary in the foreign assistance realms and change is surely coming. But change should start from better understanding the threats, opportunities, priorities, what is working already, and how the world can better share the burden of this responsibility.
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