“It's a disgrace,” President Trump said of the recent COVID-19 relief and omnibus spending bill. Trump then rattled off a series of foreign aid programs that benefit Cambodia, Burma, Egypt, Pakistan, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama as evidence that Congress prioritizes foreigners over hardworking Americans. Trump followed up by retweeting an old quip of his from 2014: “I hope we never find life on other planets because there's no doubt that the U.S. Government will start sending them money!”
Over the course of his presidency, Trump has repeatedly called for slashing funding by over 20 percent, only to have the idea rejected by Congress. This time, however, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) offered to reexamine U.S. spending on foreign operations. Beneath the rhetoric is a legitimate question: Why does the United States send foreign countries American taxpayer money? The answer, in short, is because it serves U.S. self-interest to do so.
Foreign assistance accounts for a fraction of the overall U.S. budget. In 2021, the Trump administration requested some $32.7 billion in foreign aid. That seems like a staggering sum, but not compared to the $2.3 trillion omnibus COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress. Moreover, in fiscal year 2018, towards the beginning of the Trump administration, the United States spent some $46.89 billion (PDF) on foreign assistance. Even then, though, this sum represented only one percent (PDF) of the total federal budget. While the foreign assistance budget grew in absolute terms as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the budget has hovered (PDF) roughly between one and two percent of the total U.S. budget for the last four decades.
Why does the United States send foreign countries American taxpayer money? The answer, in short, is because it serves U.S. self-interest to do so.Share on Twitter
Foreign aid represents a good investment for this relatively modest sum. Even bracketing more normative foreign policy objectives like promoting democracy or human rights, foreign assistance serves American equities narrowly defined. Peace and security investments make up one of the largest sectors of American assistance dollars, enabling other states to combat terrorism, counter international crime, and stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction—stopping potential crises before they escalate to the point where they require direct American intervention. Foreign aid opened markets for American goods. For example, 43 of the top 50 destinations for American agricultural products once received American foreign aid. Health assistance helps curb the spread of infectious diseases, possibly preventing global pandemics.
Foreign assistance will likely become a more important tool for American foreign policy in the coming years. As the Trump administration has argued (PDF), the United States is locked in competition with China, and foreign assistance forms an increasingly important front in this battle for global influence. While estimates vary, China may spend over $1 trillion on infrastructure in some 65 countries as part of its Belt and Road Initiative alone. These investments are not driven by benevolence. They trap countries in debt, bind them to China and potentially pave the way for future Chinese expansion. Countering Chinese influence may require more than artful negotiations. It may require the United States and its allies to offer an economically viable alternative to cheap, Chinese loans. Foreign assistance provides one such building block.
Admittedly, foreign assistance is not a panacea. It cannot deter China from flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, prevent Russia from waging a protracted conflict in Ukraine, deter Iran from backing its terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East, or dissuade North Korea from doubling down on its nuclear weapons programs. For those objectives, the United States relies on more coercive tools of statecraft, including military power. Foreign assistance programs, however, keep any number of other crises off this list of problems.
Aid is not some act of charity at the American taxpayers' expense; it can help keep Americans safer, more prosperous, and secure.Share on Twitter
In a few weeks, the administrations will change and so too will the debate over foreign assistance. Despite his reservations, Trump signed the COVID-19 relief/omnibus spending bill. The incoming Biden administration has stated that it plans to “elevate diplomacy as the premier tool of our global engagement,” and may want to boost foreign assistance as part of this push. And so, the debate in Washington may shift from justifying foreign assistance to understanding its limitations.
The public skepticism around the United States “sending them money,” however, will almost certainly remain, especially as the U.S. economy continues to be battered by the COVID-19 pandemic. And so, it may be worth reinforcing why we give foreign aid in the first place. Aid is not some act of charity at the American taxpayers' expense; it can help keep Americans safer, more prosperous, and secure.
A former active-duty Army officer, Raphael S. Cohen is associate director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program, a RAND Project Air Force program, and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on December 30, 2020. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.