Every year since coming into office, President Trump has proposed significant cuts in funding for the State Department and USAID. And every year, Congress has batted down those proposals. This latest budget is likely to be no different.
In his recently released $4.8 trillion budget request for the 2021 fiscal year, Trump proposed deep reductions in funding for almost every aspect of U.S. foreign aid and diplomacy. He asked Congress to fund the State Department and USAID at $40.8 billion — a 22% decrease from the $52.5 billion that was enacted the previous fiscal year.
The sharp cuts to the international affairs budget are in line with the president’s efforts to slash domestic spending in other areas, including a nearly 27% cut to the Environmental Protection Agency and a 15% cut to the Housing and Urban Development Department, along with cuts to various safety-net programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, student loan assistance and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Other agencies, however, such as NASA and the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs, would see increases, while defense spending would stay relatively flat at $740 billion.
The president’s budget, though, is rarely a serious document. It is a blueprint of political priorities and a starting point of negotiations with Congress.
And if history is any indication, many of President Trump’s cuts won’t materialize, especially when it comes to international affairs spending, which he has repeatedly tried — and failed — to curb.
In his budget request to Congress for the 2020 fiscal year, for example, Trump proposed a 23% cut in international affairs spending, asking Congress to fund the State Department and USAID at $40 billion. Congress rejected that request and instead funded foreign operations at $55 billion.
It’s a familiar pattern. For fiscal 2018, Trump sought a 28% cut in State/USAID funding, from $52.8 billion the previous fiscal year down to $37.6 billion. Instead, Congress wound up allocating $52.4 billion. Likewise, for fiscal 2019, Trump requested $37.8 billion. Instead, State and USAID got $56.1 billion.
Exercise in Futility?
Shortly after Trump announced his latest budget proposal, Democrats, who control the House, promptly dismissed it as dead on arrival. But many Republicans are equally opposed to drastic cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina flat-out told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that “we’re not going to approve” the president’s cuts, calling them “insane” and “short-sighted.”
“I don’t know who writes these things over in the White House, but they clearly don’t understand the value of soft power,” said Graham, normally a staunch Trump ally.
Given the consistent bipartisan pushback, reporters asked State Department officials during a Feb. 10 briefing why the administration keeps putting out a budget it knows Congress will reject.
State Department Director of Foreign Assistance Jim Richardson acknowledged that “Congress will always have a different view” and said the department is ready to work with lawmakers on the “long process” ahead.
The State Department also notes that the president’s proposed reductions for international affairs spending are in line with his desire to restrain overall non-defense discretionary spending.
Yet, despite the high likelihood that Trump’s proposed cuts won’t see the light of day, some experts say they already do damage by revealing how little value the president places on diplomacy, further eroding the already-battered morale at Foggy Bottom. In addition, while the cuts aren’t likely to be approved, they “will nonetheless lead to significant disruptions and inefficiencies in the planning, obligation and implementation of foreign aid programs,” according to the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), a D.C.-based advocacy coalition.
The group argues that even the threat of cuts can be dangerous because “evidence shows that development assistance is most effective when funded at relatively stable levels and for multiple years,” it said in a Feb. 11 statement.
“Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle understand the seriousness of stable and carefully planned funding for American investments abroad, so they will likely ignore the president’s requests and craft a serious budget,” Conor Savoy, MFAN’s executive director, said. “In the meantime, American development implementers are spending scarce time and energy planning out a budget scenario that will not happen.”
But the fact that it probably won’t happen because Congress continues to thwart Trump’s efforts to downsize diplomacy has rankled the president. In August 2019, he ordered that all unspent foreign aid funds for fiscal 2019 — about $4 billion — be withheld, even though Congress had ordered their disbursement. Trump relented after significant pushback from congressional Republicans and members of his staff.
Trump’s determination to significantly cut foreign affairs funding reflects his wish that other countries and international organizations be more self-sufficient and less financially reliant on the United States, and that other developed countries shoulder more of the aid burden. Fiscal conservatives also argue that many State Department initiatives are wasteful and redundant, often funding pet projects with unproven track records.
For instance, in its latest budget proposal, the administration cites various small-scale projects that it says serve no strategic purpose and are a waste of taxpayer money, including: $4,800 to send American artists to a poetry festival in Finland; $7,500 for a foreign student to attend Space Camp; and $10,000 to support the “Muppet Retrospectacle” in New Zealand.
But diplomacy advocates counter that when looking at the bigger picture, the international affairs budget comprises only 1% of total federal spending — and that Americans get a lot of bang for their buck.
“America’s diplomats are our first line of defense, advancing our nation’s goals without resorting to military conflict. They staff more than 280 embassies and consulates around the world to protect American citizens, promote our businesses, confront our adversaries, and rally allies to our side,” wrote Foreign Policy for America, a nonpartisan advocacy organization, in a budget background brief. “USAID works around the world to alleviate poverty and health crises, promote education programs, advance gender equality, and support democratic governance. U.S. development assistance is also a cornerstone of American national security.”
On that note, U.S. military officials have consistently supported a robust budget for State and USAID, citing a common refrain: Diplomatic prevention is far cheaper than military conflict.
In 2013, former Defense Secretary James Mattis famously warned that, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
Pentagon officials say that’s especially the case today.
“At a time when there are more displaced people than any time since World War II, when new diseases threaten lives and economies, when post-conflict countries struggle to put the pieces back together, as active conflicts from Syria to Libya burn, and as we try to secure the hard-fought gains against the Islamic State and Al Shabab for the long term, diplomacy and global development matter,” former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen wrote in a recent letter to congressional leaders. “This is a moment when more investment in diplomacy and development is needed, not less.”
Odds are that hawkish Republicans like Graham won’t need much convincing, if the past is anything to go by.
“For several years, there have been attempts to drastically cut America’s footprint around the world — and Congress has said ‘no way,’” Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, said in a statement. “From the Freedom Caucus to the Progressive Caucus, Congress supports development and diplomacy not only because it’s in America’s interests, but because a wide diversity of Americans supports these programs.”
Lisa Peña, director of policy, budget and appropriations for the nonprofit InterAction, echoed that sentiment following passage of the fiscal 2020 budget. “We are pleased that, in a bipartisan manner, Congress increased development funds across all sectors,” she said in a statement, “including programming for basic education, climate, gender, good governance, food security, and an increased contribution to the Global Fund. Congress included funding for humanitarian assistance in several critical contexts, including South Sudan, Syria, West Bank/Gaza, and the fight against Ebola.”
But in the fiscal 2021 budget, if the president has his way, some areas would see a lot more money than others. So who, in theory, would get what?
According to the State Department, a primary focus of the 2021 budget is to “win the great power competition” with China, Russia and Iran. To that end, the budget includes $1.5 billion in foreign assistance and $596 million in diplomatic engagement to support a U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy that would, among other things, “enable countries to assess the full costs of Chinese loans; facilitate U.S. private sector investment; [and] promote a U.S. model of democratic, transparent, responsive and business-friendly governance.”
Just under $800 million would be dedicated to countering Russian “malign influence and disinformation” in Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia, while nearly $340 million would go toward economic and military assistance for partners in the Middle East to counter Iran.
Another priority for the administration is supporting religious and ethnic minorities — particularly in the Middle East — who’d be earmarked to receive $150 million, a boost of $80 from fiscal 2019.
Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget would also allocate $205 million “to advance the transition in Venezuela” — a huge jump from the $17.5 million the country received for economic development in fiscal 2019. Meanwhile Colombia would get $412.9 million to enhance security and development, while Mexico would receive $63.8 million to deter migration and combat transnational crime, among other things.
Israel would receive $3.3 billion in foreign military financing, while Egypt would get $1.3 billion in economic and security assistance — on par with previous years. Jordan, however, would receive $75 million more than the $500 million in security assistance it received in fiscal 2020.
Meanwhile, aid to Ukraine — the country that triggered Trump’s impeachment — would remain roughly in line with 2020 levels.
Other areas would only see modest cuts, including the Peace Corps, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Export-Import Bank (which is largely self-funding anyway), and embassy security, construction and maintenance.
The budget also aims to reform and modernize the State Department and USAID by strengthening cybersecurity, reviewing public diplomacy programs and supporting a new Bureau for Resilience and Food Security.
The Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, championed by Ivanka Trump, would receive $200 million toward its goal of empowering women.
Another signature initiative of the White House, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), would see an enormous surge in funding.
The DFC replaces the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and grew out of the BUILD Act to catalyze private sector investment to promote economic development in low-income countries while advancing U.S. foreign policy and security goals. This includes countering China’s use of state-funded loans to increase its influence in the developing world.
The DFC would receive $700 million under Trump’s budget proposal, a huge leap from the $180 million enacted in 2020, although the jump makes sense considering that it is a new agency growing its staff. While economists generally applaud the DFC’s authority to leverage private investment through new financing tools such as equity investments and local currency loans, given the large amount of funding it would receive, there are concerns the DFC might come at the expense of other development initiatives.
On that note, for every winner, there’s usually a loser.
Overall, funding for most regions would decrease, although certain countries within each region would fare better than others, according to a breakdown by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC).
Most dramatically, the administration would only request $361 million for Europe and Eurasia — half of what was allocated in fiscal 2019 — with resources largely directed at countering Russian influence and aggression by supporting good governance, anti-corruption and cybersecurity programs in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
Africa — where the bulk of funding goes toward health programs, electricity, food security and counterterrorism — would also take a big hit. The 2021 budget requests $5 billion for the region, a nearly 40% drop from fiscal 2019, although certain programs, such as the Prosper Africa initiative to open new markets for American businesses, would see a boost.
More broadly, Trump wants to merge several bilateral economic and development assistance accounts, even though Congress has rejected the proposal for the last three years. Likewise, humanitarian assistance would see a major reshuffling as the administration seeks to consolidate several accounts (including refugee, food and disaster assistance) into one so-called International Humanitarian Assistance (IHA) fund.
Aid advocates say the idea of streamlining accounts certainly has merit, allowing USAID to respond to humanitarian disasters more effectively and efficiently. At the same time, they fear the consolidation is a pretext to axe funding.
Those fears are well-founded — and are likely why lawmakers have resisted the idea. Under Trump’s latest budget, the consolidation of economic support funds and development assistance accounts would result in an overall decrease of 20%. Similarly, his budget requests $6 billion in humanitarian assistance under IHA, a drop from the $9.5 billion that was enacted in total for the various humanitarian accounts last year.
State Department officials point out that even at $6 billion, the U.S. is still the largest donor of humanitarian assistance in the world.
“We’re really looking for the rest of the world to step up,” Richardson said at the Feb. 10 briefing, noting that some 35% to 40% of overall humanitarian assistance “was coming from the American people. That’s just too high, and we think 25% is a much more reasonable number, and $6 billion will help us get there.”
While the budget reflects Trump’s desire to increase burden-sharing, it also signals his political priorities, particularly his “America First” agenda that seeks to curb immigration.
To that end, migration and refugee assistance would be gutted under the proposed budget — plunging from $3.4 billion last year to just $300 million for 2021.
Similarly, funding for Central America — whose governments drew Trump’s ire after an influx of migrants fleeing violence and poverty swamped the U.S. border in 2019 — would be reduced by nearly 20% from the previous fiscal year (although the administration says those cuts are contingent on the region’s efforts to stem illegal migration).
Not surprisingly, given the president’s stance on climate change, many environmental programs would see major reductions, including initiatives to increase biodiversity and curb poaching and wildlife trafficking.
Meanwhile, the drop in funding for Afghanistan — roughly $36 million — reflects Trump’s determination to hammer out a peace deal with the Taliban and extricate U.S. troops from America’s longest war.
Other countries would also take a hit. In a recent analysis, the USGLC said that “funding for the world’s most fragile countries is a mixed bag. Funding to address the crisis in Venezuela would increase by 811% compared to the FY19 actual level, but the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen would see deep cuts while funding for Syria is zeroed out for the second year in a row.”
According to the State Department, the lack of funding for Syria, where fighting continues to rage after nine years of war, is part of the administration’s efforts to get other nations to shoulder more of the financial burden for global conflicts.
The budget “contains a new approach toward countries that have taken unfair advantage of U.S. generosity,” according to the White House. “The budget increases fiscal restraint by eliminating ineffective programs and continuing to support wide-reaching agency reforms. This includes recalibrating American contributions to international organizations; asking other nations to pay their fair share, while maintaining American leadership.”
To that end, a favorite target of the president’s, the United Nations, would see U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations drop by nearly $450 million, and America’s annual contribution to the world body itself decrease by about $500 million.
Likewise, global health programs would face harsh cuts, a particularly controversial decision in light of the coronavirus outbreak. In total, global health programs would plummet from $9 billion in fiscal 2020 to $6 billion. That includes cuts to programs dedicated to combating HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, polio eradication, maternal and child health, family planning and nutrition.
State Department officials defended those cuts, saying they reflect significant progress in controlling HIV/AIDS and will encourage other donors to step up their assistance. They also noted that the U.S. remains the largest donor overall to global health.
And despite massive cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as contributions to the World Health Organization (whose U.S. funding would drop by half), officials insist those cuts won’t jeopardize America’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, citing the State Department’s ability to tap an emergency reserve fund of $25 million and the work of other agencies to combat the virus.
Closer to home, the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) would see most of its State Department funding disappear — dropping from $45 million in 2020 to $15.7 million — as the administration pushes for the institute to seek private donations and rely on other U.S. agencies to fund its programming.
Other institutions would be eliminated altogether, including the Asia Foundation, the Inter-American Foundation and the Hawaii-based East-West Center. Many Republicans, notably Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, have long viewed these organizations as a waste of taxpayer money that should seek out other sources of money.
The amount of money these groups receive, however, is relatively trivial compared to the overall international affairs budget, and their impact negligible.
However, one area that has had a major impact on America’s global footprint is the State Department’s education programming, which Trump has consistently tried to eviscerate. His current request is no different, proposing $310 million to fund the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), which administers the Fulbright Program and other popular people-to-people exchanges. The White House budget itself notes that “in 2018, international students contributed $45 billion to the U.S. economy and supported more than 458,000 American jobs.” Yet that same budget would slash ECA funding by over $420 million from the previous fiscal year.
‘Woefully Out of Touch’
So will cultural and educational exchanges be gutted under the new budget? Probably not. In fiscal 2020, Trump proposed a similar figure for ECA — $309 million. Instead, the bureau wound up getting $730 million.
Likewise, the numbers for 2020 illustrate how most of the president’s proposed cuts never passed muster on Capitol Hill.
For example, the White House requested a 27% cut in contributions to international peacekeeping activities — from $1.5 billion in fiscal 2019 to $1.1 billion in fiscal 2020. Congress rejected that and kept the funding at $1.5 billion.
Global health, another area consistently on the chopping block, also saw its funding remain intact after Congress rejected Trump’s request of $6.3 billion and instead allocated $9 billion for global health programs like PEPFAR in fiscal 2020.
In some cases, lawmakers even went far above the money allocated in previous years. The White House proposed cutting funding for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) by 63% — from $180 million to $67 million. Instead, Congress funded the NED at $300 million for fiscal 2020.
That same year, Trump proposed $445 million in funding for the seven countries of Central America, a 16% cut from 2019. Congress provided $520 million.
And those massive cuts to environmental initiatives for biodiversity, poaching and wildlife trafficking? They also saw increased funding in 2020 above 2019 levels, and are likely to be safe again in the current round of negotiations.
So why play this game every year?
One reason why Trump and other Republicans target foreign policy for budget cuts is that it’s politically safe to do so.
“Most political science research has found that foreign policy doesn’t significantly affect people’s votes,” wrote Nathaniel Rakich in a Jan. 8 article for FiveThirtyEight.com.
But the cuts do play well with Trump’s base, which supports a more limited role for the U.S. overseas and fiscal restraint, even though Trump’s foreign aid cuts rarely materialize and represent a miniscule fraction of the federal budget.
While diplomacy makes up a small portion of overall government spending, advocates say it plays an outsize role in keeping America safe at home and promoting its interests abroad.
“Once again, this budget proposal is woefully out of touch when it comes to protecting America’s interests by calling for cuts of nearly a quarter of our footprint around the world,” said Liz Schrayer of USGLC — which is pushing Congress to fund international affairs spending at $60 billion for fiscal 2021. “Given the growing threats from the coronavirus to the rise of China and other great powers, to ongoing instability from Venezuela to Yemen and beyond, now is not the time to take our diplomats and development tools off the playing field.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat. John Brinkley contributed to this report.