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U.S. President Donald Trump (C) arrives in the House Chamber to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - HP1EE1V07S9V3
Up Front

Trump’s SOTU: Why pegging US foreign assistance to countries’ UN votes is a bad deal

One transaction-minded passage in President Donald Trump’s State of the Union that has surprisingly received little attention worries me:

“Last month, I also took an action endorsed unanimously by the U.S. Senate just months before. I recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Shortly afterwards, dozens of countries voted in the United Nations General Assembly against America’s sovereign right to make this decision. In 2016, American taxpayers generously sent those same countries more than $20 billion in aid.

“That is why, tonight, I am asking Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to friends of America, not enemies of America.”

U.S. development and humanitarian aid to developing countries is one of the few areas that enjoys strong bipartisan support in a Congress defined by political divisions. Three major pieces of legislation were passed in 2016, and funding levels for foreign assistance, which makes up less than 1 percent of the overall U.S. budget, have held steady over the past decade.

On January 30, 2018, rather than elevate and build upon this history of bipartisanship in a State of the Union address that rhetorically stressed unity, Trump asked for legislation to ensure aid always serves “American interests,” implying that aid should go only to those countries at the United Nations that vote in alignment with the U.S., echoing policy proposals that have irregularly surfaced through the years.

Trump preceded this request by referencing the resolution passed by the U.N. General Assembly against his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. That vote shows just how complicated it would be to enact such a policy: Only seven countries, in addition to the U.S. and Israel, voted with the U.S. Thirty-five countries abstained, and two of the largest recipients of U.S. assistance, Egypt and Jordan, voted against the U.S..

The U.S. makes aid available for political, economic, and moral reasons. By implying that aid is not always serving U.S. interests, the president seems to be suggesting that politics should hold sway over any other considerations.

The U.S. public disagrees. In 2017 University of Maryland poll, only 21 percent of Americans said the U.S. should use its power to make the world be the way that best serves the U.S., and 93 percent said it’s important that the U.S. take into account the views and interests of other countries.

The American public overwhelmingly favors an altruistic dimension to U.S. aid. Large majorities support humanitarian aid and economic aid to people in needy countries, without limiting such aid only to places where the U.S. has security interests. While Americans recognize and strongly support the importance of the security and economic imperatives of aid, they also uphold American values and ideals at its core.

Those values provide the basis for approaching the aid relationship with respect, and building the levels of trust with partner countries crucial to achieving maximum results. Linking votes to funds would quickly undermine U.S. credibility and change the fundamental nature of those relationships, making it harder to optimize development success with our investments.

In terms of bang for development buck, the U.S. can increasingly point to concrete successes, ones that affect not only people in partner countries, but serve U.S. interests. Take the Power Africa initiative, which has not only brought electricity to 50 million people over the past four years—it may generate 40,000 U.S. jobs and promote more than $10 billion in U.S. exports by 2030. This is no surprise, since the majority of our country’s top trading partners were once U.S. aid recipients.

Another example is our government’s concerted (and generous) Ebola response, which helped to quickly shut down an emerging pandemic while averting an outbreak here in this country. Global public “bads” like Ebola offer stark proof that today’s health threats, which are increasingly more deadly, know no boundaries. Successfully partnering with countries to address such threats at their source would be made that much harder by enacting a votes-for-aid policy.

Ceding the moral high ground in the realm of development assistance also weakens our competitive edge on the world stage, surely something Trump cares about. Indeed, the president’s recently released National Security Strategy singles out Russia and China as competitors who challenge American power, influence, and interests. China’s development financing, which has grown substantially over the past decade, and One Belt One Road initiative, which is initially investing $1.4 trillion throughout Asia and Africa, are already providing an alternative to U.S. engagement.

The government of China offers other developing countries an attractive opportunity to access financing with few socially responsible strings attached, while deepening China’s economic and political influence. For example, in contrast to conditions that are often a part of U.S. aid, support from China rarely comes with demands that borrowing countries tackle gender equity and strengthen democratic accountability.

The transactional nature of Trump’s proposal may, on the surface, appeal to his businessman’s instincts. But the trade-offs are huge, and appear almost uniquely designed to undercut the larger strategic priorities he and his administration are promoting. He should be able to see that it would be a very bad deal.

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