Is American foreign aid under siege in the era of rising populism, particularly under the Trump presidency? If so, how, and under which conditions, is the foreign aid apparatus of the United States (US)— the world’s largest foreign aid donor— under threat? I argue that the legitimacy of the US as a foreign aid donor has been substantially undermined by Trump’s abandonment of American power’s legitimation discourses that focus on multilateralism, democracy, human rights, and the promotion of market economies. Such legitimation discourses constitute the moral appeal of American power, even though those discourses often did not match what happened in practice. Trump’s populist and blatantly nationalist, sexist, and racist administration introduced a quite unprecedented scale of transformation to US foreign aid programs.
Indeed, the domestic and global appeal of US foreign aid previously relied, largely, on core legitimization narratives, particularly on aid’s intended effects: the promotion of democracy, human rights, economic development, and poverty alleviation in recipient countries. Considering his disregard for foreign aid and multilateralism, Trump’s discourses, which emphasize disengagement from global cooperation, match his administration’s attempts to dismantle America’s expansive foreign aid apparatus— an unsuccessful endeavor so far.
Understanding the status of United States foreign aid programs under the populist presidency of Donald Trump could provide some key insights about the broader effects of populist and nativist politicians on multilateralism and global cooperation. This is particularly the case when we consider the expansive development aid programs of the US, which is the world’s largest provider of foreign aid in terms of its total absolute value. Around 100 countries received US foreign aid through the programs initiated and implemented by around 20 American federal government agencies. Officially, the US government defines its foreign aid as the money given “to other countries to support global peace, security, and development efforts, and provide humanitarian relief during times of crisis,” and it considers such aid programs as “strategic, economic, and moral imperative for the United States” and its purported national interests.
The Trump administration has blatantly abandoned America’s justificatory discourses for global engagement in order to appease his broader domestic constituency that seeks to reduce foreign aid and money transfers to national governments and international organizations abroad. Perhaps this sector of the American population who calls for the dramatic reduction of US foreign aid might have been motivated by the false diagnostic belief that the US government has been allocating an unreasonably large percentage of its federal budget for foreign aid alone. In fact, recent opinion polls consistently indicate that many Americans uphold the idea (which is false anyway!) that their government is spending 25% of its total federal budget on foreign aid alone. Accordingly, those respondents suggest that the acceptable percentage should have been 10 percent, which is way above the actual percentage of federal budget allocated for foreign aid in 2019 (39.2 billion, which is 1% of the budget).
As the largest economy in the world and the largest aid donor in terms of absolute value, the US ranks as one of the lowest amongst high-income countries when it comes to the amount of official development assistance as a percentage of the gross national income (GNI). Whereas the United Nations has appealed to high-income countries to provide foreign aid valued at least 0.7% of its GNI, the US provided foreign aid valued at a mere 0.17% of its GNI in 2018, compared to Sweden as the largest donor based on that measure (1.04%), followed by Luxembourg (0.98%) and Norway (0.94%). Despite the relatively modest, if not insufficient, scale of US foreign aid and the large size of the American economy, many Americans still believe that their government has been overspending on international development. In fact, according to the 2016 research from YouGov, around 51% of American respondents believe that their government provides excessive levels of foreign aid abroad, in contrast to the view of the 9%, who urge the US to give more to needy countries. Moreover, the YouGov research indicates that amongst Republican respondents, 68% believe in excessive US foreign aid, while 42% amongst Democrats.
This apparent lack of domestic public support, within Republican and Democrat constituencies, might constitute one of the core motivations of Trump’s anti-aid rhetoric. By threatening to cut foreign aid, Trump seeks to consolidate his support base and appeal to anti-aid advocates among both Republican and Democrat voters.
Indeed, during the first three years of the Trump presidency, US foreign aid strategy received very weak political support from the White House. Trump’s political discourses during his campaign and presidential tenure demonstrate ambivalence if not straightforward rejection of humanitarian foreign aid and multilateralism. Although it was eventually rejected by Congress, Trump’s budget for 2020 aimed at abolishing around 2 to 7 billion USD worth of foreign aid regularly allocated for United Nations peacekeeping and humanitarian programs. This threat of cutting off US contributions to key international humanitarian programs demonstrates Trump’s rhetorical strategy, “America First”. In his 2017 National Security Strategy, Trump introduced his notion, ‘peace through strength’, which, in policy terms, called for the dramatic reduction of the US federal budget for diplomacy, whereas support for the military and defense budget would have to be increased. The Trump administration’s skepticism of foreign aid’s effectiveness is further reflected by statements made by Nikki Haley, who, at the time, was the US Ambassador to the UN: “Foreign aid policies are stuck in the past and often operate on auto-pilot without considering the conduct of the countries who receive our aid.” Haley and Trump expected that US foreign aid recipients should accede to US demands and interests particularly in multilateral negotiations and decision-making processes, especially in the UN.
Thus far, the Trump administration’s record on foreign aid suggests several key insights. First, the Trump administration has not clearly articulated a comprehensive strategy for revamping the US foreign aid security apparatus despite the rapidly evolving official finance programs of China, America’s most credible rival. Second, whereas Beijing’s One-Belt, One-Road initiative and other official finance programs have yet to offer a compelling vision for international development, Trump abandoned his predecessors’ reliance on the legitimating discourses of democracy and human rights promotion. This abandonment of American foreign aid’s discourses coupled with an ambivalence towards multilateralism potentially undermines the reliability of US security alliances with other states. Third, despite Trump’s radical departure from his predecessor’s foreign policy discourses, his administration remained substantially constrained in building long-term institutional policies that could embody his nativist and right-wing anti-globalization ideology. The US Congress’ eventual rejection of Trump’s budget cuts in foreign aid demonstrates Trump’s failure to successfully resist strong bipartisan opposition from Congress. Congressional opposition to drastic foreign aid cuts resonates with domestic and international pressure to continue the US commitment to multilateral cooperation, for now at least.
Salvador Santino Fulo Regilme Jr. is a tenured academic based at the History and International Relations unit of the Institute for History, Leiden University, The Netherlands. He recently finished his first book manuscript that focuses on the impact of United States foreign aid on state repression and human rights in recipient countries, while his ongoing second book project focuses on the impact of oligarchs in constitutional transformation and human rights-making.