Should We Give Foreign Aid Only to Our Friends and Allies?

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

The foreign policy portion of President Trump's State of the Union address last night touched on expected points, such as calling out the brutal Iranian and North Korean regimes and highlighting successes in the fight against ISIS.

What was more noteworthy was Trump's decision to veer into some unexpected territory: foreign assistance.

To date, the Trump administration's position on foreign assistance has been fairly hostile. As part of its "America First" agenda, the administration proposed draconian cuts to the 2018 budgets of the State Department and USAID, which were resoundingly rejected by Congress.

While some argue the United States should pay more attention to its own poverty problem, Congressional leaders like Senator Lindsay Graham have repeatedly defended the foreign aid budget as an integral component of the country's soft power.

It is surprising, then, that President Trump's pick for the administrator of USAID, Mark Green, is well respected by the development community and Capitol Hill.

Green's message that "the purpose of foreign aid is to end the need for its existence" is in line with the administration's emphasis on efficiency while echoing President Kennedy's belief that foreign aid was intended "to move more than half the people of the less-developed nations into self-sustained economic growth, while the rest move substantially closer to the day when they, too, will no longer have to depend on outside assistance."

Despite this seeming alignment with the administration's general position, USAID recently ended cooperation with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's reorganization of the State Department, prompting rumors the agency was acting to protect its autonomy and resist being absorbed into the State Department.

A Palestinian man carries a sack of food aid provided by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees at the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on January 17, 2018 The UN agency for Palestinian refugees faces its worst funding crisis ever after the United States froze tens of millions of dollars in contributions, its spokesman said. SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty

Striking as they are, these power struggles over the future of foreign aid were not the focus of Trump's comments. Instead, the president revisited the December 21 UN General Assembly vote that effectively reprimanded the United States for its decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Why the Jerusalem vote still matters for foreign aid

At the time of the UN vote, President Trump and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley both issued warnings that the United States would be " taking names " and that foreign aid to countries that did not support the US position was potentially on the line.

Last night's speech demonstrates President Trump intends to make good on those threats. Invoking the UNGA vote, Trump asked Congress "to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America's friends."

Immediately following the address, Ambassador Haley underscored the president's remarks: "America will continue to be a generous country — because it is the American way — but as the president has said, we are done writing blank checks to countries who act against us."

As I noted in December, research on the effectiveness of linking UN votes to foreign aid has shown mixed results. Poor countries, even those we support, are often willing to take symbolic stands against the United States at the UN.

It's difficult for the United States to use its outsized influence as a foreign aid donor strategically because most foreign aid is controlled by Congress, making it hard to manipulate aid flows in a timely manner. But even more difficult in moving this proposed policy forward is the sheer number of countries that voted against the United States on the Jerusalem embassy issue: 128.

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Problems with the "friends only" policy

The complexity of the problem the Trump administration faces is clear from surveying some of the countries that voted against the United States. They include many of our top foreign aid recipients: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, and Nigeria — all of which are struggling with violent Islamist extremism and are partners in the United States' efforts to combat terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda.

Additionally, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa that voted against the United States are the same countries where the United States should be positioning itself to compete with China's extensive foreign assistance and global investment.

While the Trump administration has succeeded in restricting aid to Pakistan, that policy developed from an August 2017 presidential warning that Pakistan needed to step up its counterterrorism cooperation. It's unclear what impact, if any, Pakistan's "no" vote at the UN had.

More relevant is the decision to partially suspend funding for the UN's Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA. Although publicly linked to reform of the agency, reports suggest it was due to the fallout from the UN vote; it has also been linked to the unwillingness of the Palestinian leadership to engage in peace talks.

While the Trump administration's "friends only" approach might have public support (57 percent of respondents in a March 2017 survey said that the $42.4 billion planned for foreign assistance in 2017 was excessive), it will be difficult to bring Congress on board.

One way to make it more palatable would be to guarantee that the United States will continue to be the world's leading supplier of humanitarian assistance. In 2016, the United States provided almost $6.3 billion in humanitarian aid. $1.5 billion of that funding went to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN's refugee agency, with an additional $1.4 billion supporting the UN's World Food Programme.

Guaranteeing America's continued generosity toward those most in need may generate enough goodwill in Congress to give the Trump administration the flexibility it wants in other areas of foreign assistance.

Jessica Trisko Darden is a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.