In March 2017 the Trump Administration sketched out a “skinny” budget to Congress, and on May 23 it formally introduced that budget. America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again calls for an $11 billion cut for the State Department, including USAID, which amounts to 29-31 percent of its total budget, depending on how you count. This was the second largest cut for any set of programs, exceeded only by a proposed 31 percent cut in the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency. The budget calls for a $52 billion increase for the Department of Defense (10 percent). The only other agencies that receive proposed increases of more than 1 percent were Veterans Affairs (6 percent) and the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees nuclear weapons and other security-related nuclear programs (11 percent). If passed, the budget—or anything closely resembling it—would not make America greater than it already is; it would make America less secure.
The base funding for the Defense Department is already 15 times larger than the base funding for State, USAID, and the Treasury Department’s international programs. Although the U.S. military might not have quite as many band members as the State Department has Foreign Service Officers, the numbers are not that far apart. Combatant commanders have their own planes and arrive in any foreign capital with a large entourage. Assistant Secretaries of State have no planes and fly commercially.
Hard military power is clearly essential for addressing some of the security challenges facing the United States, especially those coming from hostile and potentially hostile foreign powers, notably Russia and China. These challenges are fairly straightforward, but even in these cases military power is necessary but not sufficient. Short of major war, policy aims to prevent hostile powers from jeopardizing U.S. interests and those of its allies. Containment and deterrence require clarity, and clarity is a function of the orchestration of words and deeds—otherwise known as diplomacy.
Consider one case to illustrate the point: Would the United States really defend the Baltic States if one or more of them were invaded or subverted by Russia? Would it put New York or Washington at risk for Tallinn or Riga? Having the military power to credibly do such things is the backbone of a policy intended to obviate war without sacrificing interests. The complementary non-military components of deterring hostile or potentially hostile great powers are just as critical, but less tangible and more fragile. The United States has in the past tried to make its commitments to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania clear through treaty obligations and presidential rhetoric, but Donald Trump has already undermined the credibility of these commitments by questioning the value of U.S. alliances, however much he has tried to backpedal. Trump’s rhetoric lowered the constraints on risky actions that the Russian leadership might take in the Baltics and in other former-communist areas in Europe. Increasing the Defense Department budget cannot by itself undo that.
The other major security challenges confronting the United States are less traditional and less straightforward but arguably not less important. They include defending against transnational terrorism, pandemic diseases, and the effects of massive migration—challenges that cannot be adequately addressed using the resources of the Department of Defense alone. This is something the current Secretary of Defense knows quite well and has often said. All three threats have a common source: poorly governed, failing, and weak or malign states.
Terrorist attacks can arise anywhere. The husband in the San Bernardino murders, Syed Farook, was raised in the United States and attended California State University Fullerton. But he was inspired by ISIS ideology via the internet. Failed and badly governed states—Libya most recently, as the Manchester attack shows—provide safe havens for radicalized Salafist Islamic groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, places where they can train adherents, propagate their message, and refine their ideology. These groups and the individuals they inspire are a direct security threat to the United States, a threat that has been amplified by the fact that nuclear or radiological bombs might be secured from failed, malign, or badly governed states and that biological pathogens can be more easily fabricated by individuals or groups.
Naturally occurring pandemic diseases are a second threat. About 400 diseases have jumped from animals to humans over the past seventy years. Most of them have originated in tropical areas where humans are encroaching on areas previously populated only by animals. Up until now we have been lucky. The best known of these diseases, HIV/AIDS and Ebola, are relatively difficult to transmit. A disease that was transmissible through the air instead of via bodily fluids could kill hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of Americans. Stopping these diseases when they first break out is our best line of defense. This requires strengthening the health infrastructure in poorly governed states.
Finally, massive migration threatens both liberal and humanitarian values. European states have been most afflicted by the massive displacement of people from wars in the broader Middle East. There are no good policy options to address such movements once they begin: Accepting unlimited numbers of individuals is untenable; sending refugees back to unsafe countries could make Western government complicit in a humanitarian catastrophe. Our best policy option is to prevent such flows in the first place.
Successfully addressing these and other threats that do not fall into the category of major-power competition requires two functions: understanding, which comes from good intelligence and even better analysis; and policy options available from a wide-ranging toolkit. That toolkit includes foreign assistance.
Foreign assistance is in fact a very versatile tool. It can vary from more or less straightforward bribes, to supporting not-so-attractive foreign rulers whose interests nevertheless complement or align in some manner with our own, to building state-capacity, to assisting selected countries in a position to move along a path to consolidated democracy. These uses of foreign assistance are directly related to the threat to American national security posed by transnational terrorism, pandemic diseases, and other non-traditional challenges, all of which emanate from badly governed or weak states.
We ignore badly governed, failed, and malign states at our peril because even states with very limited capacity can threaten the security of the United States. It is easier to ignore these threats when straightforward, more or less old-fashioned great power issues take center stage, but it is still a mistake to do so. If states are reasonably well governed, at least if they have adequate internal security, then terrorism, potential pandemic diseases, and massive migrant flows can be better contained. If states are weak, failing, or governed by malign autocrats, our security challenges will be greater because of them.
It is, though, very difficult to put failing, weak, or malign states securely on the path to democracy and a market-oriented economy. We need to use foreign assistance primarily to enhance our own national security in the short and medium term. The rich democratic countries of North America, Western Europe, and East Asia are historically the exception, not the rule. For almost all of human history in all places on this globe, governments have been rapacious and exploitative. There has been precious little by way of law-based accountability for political rulers; power has flowed from the barrel of a gun or the tip of a spear or the string of a bow. Political rulers have fed their cousins and those who commanded the weapons to stay in power. Governments that occupy the Madisonian sweet spot—strong enough to maintain order but accountable enough to not be oppressive—have been and remain relatively rare, and there is nothing inevitable about more such governments coming into being. There is no natural progression from poverty to prosperity, from autocratic rule to democratic rule.
We in the West, the providers of foreign assistance, should accept a sobering conclusion: Where we can make a difference in transforming poor governance into better if not democratic governance, we have a clear self interest in doing so; but it is very hard to make a sustainable, transformative difference. In most cases we will not be able to make countries into Denmark or even put them securely on a path to Denmark. This puts a premium on keeping our eye on the longer-term goal, on being patient, and on constantly looking for opportunities and better techniques to advance our goals.
Alas, patience is not something the American public is particularly good at, which is one reason that, especially among non-meliorist-minded conservatives, foreign assistance has never been popular. That certainly seems to be the case in the current Republican Administration. Many conservatives see foreign assistance as the foreign flipside of welfare, which they like even less.
That said, the skeptical brief against foreign assistance is not pure wind. Although foreign assistance has been a widely accepted practice for the past 55 years—USAID and the Peace Corps were both born by Executive Order in 1961—its record of accomplishments is frustratingly thin. In the 1950s, the widely held assumption in the United States and elsewhere, derived from then-dominant modernization theory, was that if countries received foreign aid they would be able to close the investment gap; if they were able to invest more they would grow faster; if they had higher levels of growth they would have a larger middle class and a larger middle class would be the foundation for a democratic political regime.
This very optimistic and straightforward story has, alas, not come to pass. The only larger country that has substantially changed its place in the international ordering of wealth and democracy, going from poor and autocratic to rich and democratic, is South Korea. The per capita income of South Korea at the end of the Korean War was at the same level as the colonies of West Africa; today South Korea is a member of the OECD with a per capita income above $25,000. Most of the countries that were poor in 1961 remain relatively poor today, in many cases notwithstanding many billions of dollars worth of foreign aid.
The classic assumption of foreign assistance was that leaders want to do the right thing; they want to improve the living conditions of their own people. This assumption is wrong. What political leaders want most is to stay in power. In democracies they must respond to the demands of most of their people. In non-democracies, they only need to satisfy the demands of a small part of their population; those people, most of whom have guns, they need to keep them in power.
The United States thus confronts a genuine dilemma. For reasons associated with our own security—especially related to transnational terrorism and pandemic disease—we need to improve governance in badly governed states, but our traditional aid programs have not been successful. We therefore need to re-think the objectives of foreign assistance and to distinguish foreign assistance from humanitarian programs that save lives even if they do not change polities. Our fundamental objective should be American national security. We need to identify programs that are consistent with our own interests and with the interests of political elites in target states. We have to find the sweet spot where our interests overlap.
First, therefore, we have to work to change the incentives of leaders in relatively poorly governed states. Under the Bush Administration, the United States implemented a new program, the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), which rewarded countries for doing well on third-party indicators of governance, investing in health and education, and economic openness. This program has worked. Countries near the threshold for receiving MCA assistance have changed their policies. Incentives matter. Abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which had a kind of MCA incentive structure built within it, was a very bad idea exactly because it sent the wrong signal to potential Asian partners and to countries that might still exert themselves to make the transition to democracy.
Second, the U.S. government needs to improve its intelligence about and relations with potential leaders in the developing world. The preferences of political elites in developing countries can vary from gross theft, corruption, and repression to patronage (a much better form of corruption than gross theft), some economic growth, and security with limited repression. The U.S. government needs to be able to identify flesh-and-blood partners, real individuals, with whom it can work. This requires engagement and intelligence, and so requires a larger Foreign Service, not a smaller one. When an American official picks up the phone, there should be someone he can call, someone he knows personally, at the other end of the line. Such programs have worked for the American military, which engages in extensive training for officers from other countries through the IMET program and in other ways. Our civilian officials should have the same advantages.
The fundamental objective of our foreign assistance program should be security, health, and economic growth. These three goals are consistent with our interests and with the interests of elites in target states, even autocratic elites. At times, the interests of the United States would best be served by paying off the right foreign leaders. Both effective growth strategies and even pay-offs require a larger foreign aid budget, not a smaller one.
All leaders want security. They want to be able to effectively control their own territory. If they can effectively control their own territory, they can address transnational terrorist threats. Security assistance, especially strengthening the policing capabilities of poorly governed states, is an objective we should prioritize. And while such assistance may and usually does involve the Defense Department, is has always been and still needs to be organized and implemented by the State Department including USAID.
Better health is the big success story of the postwar period. In many countries life expectancy has increased by 30 years. Even in some very poor countries like Bangladesh, which now has a per capita income of $1,200, life expectancy increased from 46 years in 1960 to 72 years in 2014. All leaders can reap some benefits from the better provision of health. Various international programs, such as the elimination of smallpox, which was led by the World Health Organization, and national programs such as PEPFAR, which was initiated by the George W. Bush, have saved lives and highlighted American generosity. Ebola was halted relatively quickly in Nigeria because of a polio-monitoring program that had been put in place by the Gates Foundation.
All leaders will accept some economic growth if that growth does not threaten their own political position. Poorer states will not easily become dynamic market economies where economic changes can threaten the political leadership, but political leaders will want to provide more jobs for their populations. No foreign assistance program can guarantee sustained positive growth over the long term, and foreign assistance is usually less important overall than sound macroeconomic policies and freer trade. But aid programs can build capacity and human capital, and they can thus build a foundation for growth and higher levels of per capita income.
In addition to security, health, and economic growth there are two other objectives that American foreign assistance broadly understood can address. First, we can limit the impact of humanitarian crises. USAID has expertise in addressing these issues, especially via its highly skilled DART teams. The United States has been a rich and generous country. Abandoning humanitarian assistance would be a violation of American values, and would threaten our security by widening the area of ungoverned spaces.
Second, we might be able in some special circumstances to stop conflicts before they spread or mitigate their impact after they have taken place. Smaller agencies, such as the United States Institute of Peace (I have been a member of the USIP Board for several years) can contribute to these goals. UN peacekeeping missions may be acceptable to conflicting parties because they are politically neutral; the use of these missions can save American lives. Programs like those of USIP and UN Peacekeeping missions can save American lives and treasure. Cutting them, as the budget proposes, would make us less safe.
To guarantee our security we need a strong military, but it must be a military that we do not have to use very often. Whenever we are faced with a choice abroad between passivity and sending the cavalry, it is a sign of antecedent error. Diplomacy and development are complements to defense, not rivals: As Colin Powell recently put it, they prevent the wars we can avoid, so that we fight only the ones we must. Effective American leadership requires the three “D”s working in concert: defense, diplomacy, and development. But we need development programs that address the world as it is, not as we would like it to be—development programs that are hard-nosed, patient, and clearly conceived not as a form of charity but as an investment in our own interests.
Even before the specter of the “skinny” budget arose, U.S. foreign assistance in relative terms has been paltry, near the bottom of OECD countries as a percentage of GDP (though still the largest in absolute terms in most cases). And as a percentage of the U.S. Federal budget, development assistance is tiny—less than 1 percent. Indeed, those who dislike foreign aid almost always wildly exaggerate how much money we spend on it. In our own self-interest, we should be providing more foreign aid, not less, as we refine our approaches to the many serious challenges that development aid, along with other policy instruments, addresses. Cutting the budgets of the State Department and USAID in such a massive way would both crush morale and cripple crucial capabilities, making the United States less secure. To borrow a phrase from our British cousins, if ever a policy notion were penny-wise, pound-foolish, the budget’s approach to State and USAID is it.