The Trump Administration, at least as suggested by the election platform and the first several weeks in office, is based on America First; perceived domestic economic decline; withdrawal, relatively speaking, from commitments abroad; an emphasis on security concerns, as opposed to charity; wariness of federal institutions; rigid nation-state borders; and, in general, a tougher-edged view of the outside world. Supporters of the Administration assert that we have spent too much time thinking about the well-being of outsiders, and not enough about American women, men and children in Cleveland, among other places representing the heartland of the country.
The foreign aid community seemingly could not be much different. The USAID officials, international humanitarian organizations, non-profits and think tanks in that community espouse global connectedness; American fiscal and intellectual generosity; increases, relative to military spending, in U.S. investments abroad; defense of the rights of refugees and others who are oppressed; multilateral efforts to address worldwide concerns; foreign policies that reflect America’s long tradition of supporting the world’s underdogs; and, in general, coherence between the objectives of U.S. citizens and the desires of citizens in the world’s poor countries. Supporters of a vigorous U.S. foreign aid program believe that the well-being of a child in the slums of Kampala, Uganda – while not more meaningful than the well-being of a child in Cleveland – is also vitally important.
Although we are still unsure of the new White House position on foreign aid policy, these glaringly different, perhaps even clashing, paradigms might presage a Trump Administration disregard for U.S. foreign aid programs as irrelevant for its overall agenda. Based on seeing this set of issues from diverse perspectives – as a Marine infantry officer; as a USAID worker; as a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses; as a Save the Children employee; and, especially, as the director of a State Department study on countering violent extremism – I believe that would be a serious mistake. Let me connect a few dots and explain why.
First, on the “protecting Americans” front, violent extremism and its spawn, terrorism, are driven by many factors: marginalization; fear that your group is being persecuted; propaganda narratives; hopelessness; corrupt politicians; even mental instability. For many observers the logical response lies in the security realm, with more effective military and police action. But, as our military leaders keep reminding us: You can’t kill everyone who might be a security threat. What U.S. foreign aid programs accomplish -- by providing the health care, education and other programs that bring a measure of hope in desperate circumstances – is to reduce the number of those driven to extremist acts. Such programs can reduce significantly the pool of those individuals that require a military or police response. Well-designed foreign aid programs, working in countries at risk of violent extremism, can allow law enforcement and military implements of national policy to focus on that minority committed to extralegal violence.
Second, the same reality applies in the international migration realm. By addressing social, economic and political problems in the home country of potential refugees, U.S. foreign aid programs can reduce, cost-effectively, the pressure for massive migration and reduce the costs required for migration management. Higher border walls and “extreme vetting” offer policy possibilities, but at the cost of huge fiscal expenditures and disruption to the American economy. Addressing the drivers of migration abroad is a viable, and potentially much less costly option.
Similarly, it is apparent that international threats to the American homeland are not solely kinetic. In a world of Zika and Ebola, U.S. foreign aid programs that build African, Asian and Latin American health diagnosis and treatment capacity also protect Americans by addressing threats like pandemic risks at their root.
Finally, on the fiscal resources side, I believe an Administration seeking to reduce federal costs should look closely at foreign aid as a relative fiscal bargain. General James Mattis’s famous Capitol Hill comment that limiting investments in diplomacy and international development mean “I have to buy more ammunition” illuminates a critical calculus. The price tag of the one U.S. Osprey aircraft lost in a recent Special Forces raid in Yemen, at $70 million, could have – if wisely invested in critical countries – potentially kept a host of potential terrorists off the battlefield to begin with.
In short, serious thinkers in the Trump Administration, even with a hard-edged foreign policy agenda, should be embracing USAID and U.S. foreign aid as central to its tough-minded international agenda. If Trump policymakers take a bit of time to connect the dots on issues like protecting Americans from international threats, ameliorating the pressures for international migration, and addressing their agenda cost-effectively, the foreign aid implement in the U.S. international security toolkit makes excellent sense.
One closing thought: Frankly I am not sure my international development colleagues want the job I’ve described of serving as a foreign policy “implement” for the Trump Administration, or any President for that matter. Some might well rebel at the thought of designing foreign aid to counter terrorism or dampen migration, rather than to address global problems and improve the lives of individuals. I suggest that the development community would also do well to connect the dots and recognize that the real risk to human progress lies in American retreat from the developing world. Although in the formulation I have outlined above, the underlying hypotheses and logic of the international development community may run counter to those of the new Administration, I would offer that human progress can proceed under multiple sets of assumptions, hypotheses and outcome metrics.
Jim Kunder is an affiliated expert at The Lugar Center. He has had a long career in development, including as Acting Deputy Administrator at USAID from 2006 to 2009.