With his new budget plan, President Donald Trump has a stark message for foreign governments and aid workers seeking Washington’s help to stop famines, shelter refugees and deal with other crises: Don’t count on America.
But a furious, diverse and largely united cast of critics has a response to that: You’ll regret this.
Many budget detractors are confident that Trump’s proposal will never become a reality due to bipartisan resistance in Congress. Still, the vocal dissent from across the political spectrum underscores how worried people are about the signal the White House is sending to the rest of the world by merely proposing the cuts.
The Trump budget proposal laid out this week cuts the $50 billion combined budget of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development budgets by 28 percent, officials said. A big chunk of that is expected to come from foreign aid, which makes up less than 1 percent of the roughly $4 trillion U.S. federal budget and helps fund everything from earthquake relief in Nepal to fighting drug trafficking in Latin America. The proposed cuts would instead help pay for a $54 billion increase in U.S. defense spending.
Trump aides are casting the proposal as one that’s about “hard power,” a term used to cover military might, not “soft power,” a term that typically includes diplomacy and humanitarian aid. The aides also say the proposal is a call for other countries to step up their contributions.
“The budget is an acknowledgment that development needs are a global challenge to be met not just by contributions from the United States, but through greater partnership with and contributions from our allies and others,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement Thursday.
A senior State Department official said the cuts focus heavily on foreign aid because the administration wants to be in “less of a nation-building” mode. The president “ran on ‘America first’, and you see that reflected in the budget,” the official said.
But the proposal lands at an exceptionally volatile time on the international front.
The world is facing a remarkable series of humanitarian challenges, including a historic refugee crisis that is straining Europe and the Middle East and looming famines in parts of Africa. In just a few days, for instance, the United States is hosting more than 60 countries involved in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist network in Iraq and Syria. Many of those same countries are now wondering what role, if any, the U.S. plans to play in the post-war reconstruction effort.
Some observers warn that if the U.S. backtracks on foreign aid, others might follow its example.
“In nearly every complex crisis I worked on, the United States needed to lead not just with our ideas, but also with our money — whether it was disaster assistance or economic aid,” said Eric Pelofsky, a former senior Obama administration official and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We didn’t need to be the biggest donor. But, to internationalize a crisis response, we needed to put our money where our mouth is.”
Organizations in the aid world warned that the U.S. is not easy to replace, given that it is the world’s largest provider of development assistance. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, often partners with the U.S. government.
Losing U.S. funding “would be devastating to work that is ongoing,” said Rob Nabors, the foundation’s director of policy and government affairs. “Devastating in terms of advancements to find cures to diseases, to continue our work to eradicate polio, try to get malaria under control.”
Trump’s willingness to put “soft power” on the chopping block also comes in the wake of Trump’s so far unsuccessful attempts to temporarily bar refugees and visitors from six Muslim-majority countries. The moves combined will heighten anti-Americanism, critics warn.
“This budget would actually make the United States less safe and put a heavier burden on our men and women in uniform,” argued Tom Hart, a top official with ONE, the global advocacy group tied to U2 singer Bono.
Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, pointed to loud dissent in Congress as evidence that Trump alone won’t control the narrative. “He has a bully pulpit, and he’s communicating a message of how he sees what we should be doing with our budget, but there are other people sending out other messages,” she said.
Many of the budget blueprint’s detractors are, predictably, advocacy groups such as Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee. But joining them are Christian activists, retired military officers and business leaders. All argue that scuttling “soft power” means the U.S. will foolishly ignore the root causes of global instability, thus leading it to endlessly react to the often-violent symptoms.
The classic example many point to is Afghanistan, the impoverished country which the U.S. largely neglected in the 1990s after helping oust the Soviets. The Taliban-led nation soon became a haven for Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden as he oversaw the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. If the U.S. backtracks on its commitment to reconstructing Afghanistan after more than 15 years of fighting the Taliban there, history could repeat itself, the critics warn.
But the threats, the critics rush to add, are not simply about warfare. A good chunk of U.S. aid goes to health-related programs aimed at stopping threats that don’t recognize national borders, such as the Ebola virus.
The senior State Department official insisted the administration remains committed to some programs, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a program credited with saving millions of lives. The difference? “We are going to be more strategic about how we spend the money,” this person said.
The overall notion of slashing foreign aid does have some fans, especially among conservatives who view such U.S. assistance as a sort of global welfare program. Critics of foreign aid say it stunts the willingness of poorer nations to strengthen their institutions and take care of their own problems. In places like Pakistan, decades of foreign assistance from the U.S. and others appear to have had limited success in helping the country’s governance or its people. Instead, they note, the foreign funding can breed corruption.
Among the biggest boosters of the budget proposal is the Heritage Foundation, which is believed to have influenced its outlines. The Trump budget “envisions a smaller, more efficient federal government that will begin focusing on core functions while ensuring Americans remain safe and secure,” Heritage CEO Michael Needham said in a statement.
Exactly how the budget cuts will be implemented — if Congress ever allows it — remains to be seen. There has been speculation that any number of configurations are possible, including folding USAID into the State Department.
The fate of the Peace Corps is unclear, but the budget proposal would eliminate funding for the U.S. Institute of Peace, which was established by Congress to promote conflict resolution. Funding for the United Nations could take a major hit, and U.N. officials are especially worried about refugee assistance programs or the World Food Program.
Trump has yet to appoint a USAID director or people to other numerous vacant leadership positions at State. That frustrates groups that rely on foreign aid, who say they aren’t sure who to turn to — aside from Congress — to lobby against the cuts. The White House seems to be calling the shots, but such groups aren’t sure how to approach Trump, who has shown little awareness of the details of foreign aid. The frustrations are shared by serving USAID officials, who say it’s hard to for those on the inside to privately advance their views on the cuts.
“I just think there is not a deep understanding or appreciation of what foreign assistance actually is within the political leadership,” a USAID official told POLITICO. “There are a lot of people who are really worried, but we don’t exactly know what to expect so people aren’t necessarily making rash decisions.”
Some lawmakers say the real cuts are actually deeper than the 28 percent Trump’s aides mention. Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland’s office said that when the entire “international affairs budget” section is considered — which includes more than just State and USAID — it’s more like a 36 percent cut to a $58 billion budget.
In a statement that partially echoed one from USAID, the State Department said the budget blueprint “supports other critical foreign assistance efforts, including global health and humanitarian assistance programs,” but it did not specify which such programs would be considered critical. The State Department also insisted that the budget “supports diplomatic engagement activities, and ensures the safety of our diplomats by applying $2.2 billion towards new embassy construction and maintenance.”
It also pointed to one notable exception to the planned slashes to U.S. foreign aid: the $3.1 billion in U.S. aid to Israel will remain untouched. While not mentioned, aid to Egypt will also be likely left largely intact. The Arab country is one that Trump appears to favor because of his affinity for its strongman leader and its crackdown on Islamist groups.
An earlier Trump budget outline included a reported 37 percent budget cut to State and USAID. But Tillerson managed to get that figure lowered, at least for the first year. It’s entirely possible, however, that if the 28 percent cut does make it through, more cuts could follow in the years afterward.
In his statement on Thursday , the secretary of state indicated that a more detailed budget plan would be crafted “in the coming weeks.” “We will do this by reviewing and selecting our priorities, using the available resources, and putting our people in a position to succeed,” Tillerson said.