Foreign Aid Belongs in America's National-Security Toolkit

A large shipment of food arrives at the World Food Programme UNMISS UNHOUSE Warehouse in Juba. Flickr/Creative Commons/USAID/WFP/Giulio d'Adamo

Cutting foreign aid is strategically short-sighted and does not fully consider the implications for U.S. national security.

President Donald Trump’s budget outline calls for $603 billion in defense spending that represents a 10 percent ($54 billion) increase over current spending caps. The plan to offset the increased military spending by cutting nondefense discretionary spending, particularly the State Department and foreign aid, has revived the “guns versus butter” debate that warrants further examination beyond his declaration that the U.S. government will simply “do more with less.” While the president has not yet disclosed the full details for cutting specific programs and agencies, foreign aid is a critical component of U.S. foreign policy and the national-security apparatus. Both the Trump administration and Congress would be wise to carefully examine the strategic consequences of this proposal during the upcoming budgeting process.

To be clear, I fully support the president’s plan to boost military spending. After fifteen years of continuous combat operations, many members of the Armed Forces are fatigued from multiple deployments, while their equipment is run down and in dire need of maintenance and modernization. At a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran testified that the intense operations tempo has created a “downward readiness spiral,” where the Navy is able to satisfy only 40 percent of the demand from regional combatant commanders. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel Allen said that only three of the Army’s fifty-eight Brigade Combat Teams are assessed as ready to “fight tonight.” Air Force Vice Chief Gen. Stephen W. Wilson claims that fewer than 50 percent of the Air Force’s combat units are “sufficiently ready for a highly contested fight against peer adversaries.” Such testimony from senior military leaders is alarming, especially when one considers that the Pentagon has reportedly sent the White House a “preliminary framework” for options to defeat ISIS that would likely ramp up U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria. That said, increased defense spending can and should be accomplished without resorting to foreign aid as a bill payer.

Trump expressed an aversion to nation building on the presidential campaign trail, and pledged to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us.” While his plan to cut foreign aid may be a politically expedient method to boost military spending, it is strategically short-sighted and does not fully consider the implications for U.S. national security. For example, during his recent address to Congress the president said that “America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align. We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict.” Foreign aid is a strategic asset that allows the State Department to more effectively use the “soft power” instruments of diplomacy and development to realize these ambitions.

Of course, the notion of cutting foreign aid is not unique to the Trump administration. In his February 2015 testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “After serving in public life for over three decades, I am aware that there are few more reliable—or damaging—applause lines than promising to slash the budgets of the State Department and USAID. President Reagan once lamented that, ‘Foreign aid suffers from a lack of domestic constituency.’ And it’s true that, in Washington, long-term goals can often lose out to more visible short-term projects. But that’s exactly why we need your help—to take the long view and to recognize how the relatively modest investments we make now can improve the world and enhance our own security for generations to come.”

Kerry makes the fiscal case that foreign aid is cheaper than using military force and, therefore, worth the investment. Without doubt, the United States has made some unwise and regrettable foreign aid decisions in the past. However, as Max Boot correctly argues, “that’s an argument for more focused spending, not for radically cutting the foreign aid budget.”