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US should use foreign aid leverage wisely

Since the start of the year, the Trump administration has suspended most military aid to Pakistan and threatened to cut aid to the Palestinians. In December, the US also threatened to cut aid to countries that voted in favor of a UN resolution that essentially criticized the decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
President Donald Trump is not the first president to use US foreign aid as a carrot and stick, and not the first to threaten to cut aid to countries that displease Washington. However, his “America first” rhetoric and recent actions raise new questions about the future of US foreign aid.
The United States gives more foreign aid than any other country in simple dollar terms. According to a Washington Post estimate from October 2016, the country was spending more than $42 billion abroad in combined economic and development aid and security assistance. However, many other countries spend a larger proportion of their economy and budget on foreign aid.
The US spends about 1 percent of its annual federal budget on foreign aid. Surveys show that most Americans believe the country spends far more, with a 2015 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation finding that the average American respondent thought the country spent 26 percent of its budget on foreign aid. Given this misperception of the country’s generosity, it is hardly surprising that many Americans think the country spends too much abroad.
While some aid is purely humanitarian, most is aimed at supporting strategic goals abroad and ultimately saves Washington money and lives.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Many Americans are unaware of the complex goals behind US foreign aid. While some is purely humanitarian, most is designed to support strategic goals abroad — in fact, serving US interests. Aid usually is mutually beneficial.
Sometimes aid directly suits “hard” US interests. A large portion of US security assistance requires that recipient countries purchase weapons and military equipment from US producers and contractors — essentially a US government subsidy for the military industry that also bolsters allies’ military capabilities. Security and development aid to countries that are the source of drug supplies, such as Colombia, or important drug transportation nodes, such as Mexico, also directly serves the US interest of tackling the country’s drug problem at source. Aid designed to help countries implement counter-terrorism programs is intended to improve security in the recipient country while also helping the US combat terrorism. 
In many cases, US foreign aid helps buy more “soft” power in terms of influence. Various forms of aid help persuade foreign governments to cooperate with the US on intelligence, counter-terrorism and military interests. Economic development aid often follows the idea that countries with stronger economies make better trade and investment partners for the US and are more likely to be politically stable. Aid also helps to support US strategic goals; for example, aid to Israel — the second-largest recipient of US aid after Afghanistan — and to Egypt and Jordan, which are also among the top recipients, is intended partly to provide incentives to maintain those countries’ peace treaties. 
Fundamentally, much US aid is based on the idea that it is cheaper to address problems abroad at the source rather than deal with problems spreading to American shores. For example, Washington provides aid to help countries deal with public health problems and pandemics, such as Zika and Ebola and especially HIV/AIDS, partly in the hope that such aid helps to contain infectious disease and limit their spread. It is also cheaper in dollars and lives to address problems abroad that, if not prevented, could turn into conflicts requiring US military intervention. For example, current Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in 2013 (when he was head of US Central Command) that “if you don’t fund the State Department fully then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” 
Given these arguments in favor of foreign aid, there has been a lot of debate about the effectiveness of cutting aid when Washington is unhappy with recipient countries. On one hand, it is reasonable that the American people would want to be sure that their money is not being wasted on corruption or used to harm innocent people or to damage US interests. On the other hand, some recipient countries also have significant leverage with the US, such as Pakistan, whose cooperation is needed to support American military operations in Afghanistan. Furthermore, some other countries like China are emerging global donors and Washington faces some competition for buying influence through aid. The case of cutting US funds to Pakistan is a perfect example of the difficult pros and cons in giving or cutting foreign aid. 
The Trump administration is not the first to struggle with this issue. However, the administration’s rhetoric around the UN vote on Jerusalem demonstrated a lack of understanding of the nuanced ways in which foreign aid serves US interests. Trump and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley threatened to cut aid to countries that voted against them on a non-binding resolution of little strategic importance — not a wise use of the limited leverage that aid gives Washington. The Trump administration is right to expect to get something in return for US aid, but it is wrong to believe that aid buys total acquiescence to all US demands. 
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch