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Americas

Trump’s planned foreign aid, UN cuts would diminish US influence

President Donald Trump is expected to push for deep cuts in US foreign aid in his initial budget proposal, but that could be a hard sell in Congress. More likely is a new focus - and a down-sized US role in the UN.

Two figures highlight better than words the US government's priorities. The State Department's budget for the current fiscal year is $50 billion (47 billion euros). The Pentagon's budget for the same period is $583 billion. To be clear, these figures are still courtesy of the Obama administration.

The Trump government's initial budget proposal, according to media reports, aims to tip the scales between defense and State Department spending even further. While it was widely reported previously that Trump was seeking a 37 percent reduction in the State Department's budget for the next fiscal year, Politico wrote that the cuts foreseen in Trump's budget proposal could now be less than that after a push back from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

But regardless how big the size of the cut is that will eventually be asked of the State Department, it seems clear that Trump wants to drastically slash the funds available to US diplomats. At the same time he plans to increase the money available to the US military at the tune of 10 percent - a drastic step given that fact that the State Department budget pales in comparison to that of the Pentagon.

USA Tillerson vom Senat endgültig zum US-Außenminister ernannt (Reuters/K. Lamarque)

Tillerson reportedly pushed back against Trump's planned State Department cuts

This, of course, is in line with Donald Trump's campaign pledge. After all, in his statement announcing his presidential bid, Trump vowed to "stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us." He also had repeatedly promised to bolster America's military budget, which he considered depleted.

Biggest foreign aid donor

This is particularly important because the US, as is widely known, is not only by far the world's largest military spender, but, as is less widely known, is also the world's largest foreign aid donor. 

Trump's plan to put the State Department, and especially its affiliated foreign aid entity USAID, on the chopping block caused a massive backlash, perhaps most notably from 120 retired military leaders who sent a letter to Congress warning against slashing foreign assistance.

The move was also hammered by Republicans like Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, key members of the defense and foreign relations committees respectively.  

Given the broad political opposition in Congress and beyond against Trump's envisaged cuts to foreign aid, Dustin Tingley, a Harvard University political scientist who co-wrote a book about the domestic ramifications of American foreign policy, predicts that the president could be up for a negative surprise.  

Cheap way to conduct foreign policy

"I think that the cuts are unlikely to happen nearly to the extent that some might think they will," said Tingley. The reason for this, he added, is simple. "Foreign aid is an extremely cheap way for the US to conduct its foreign policy."

USA Pentagon Washington (picture alliance/dpa/D. Brack)

Trump wants to raise US defense spending

While Trump as a foreign policy novice may not have realized this, many Congressional Republicans have. And since Congress holds the budgetary power, enough Republicans will be ready to block Trump's severe cuts and demand a more measured budget, said Tingley:   

"What you are going to see is the standard playbook by Trump which is to make a big claim and then when you look at what the details shake out to be, it will be a much more moderate inflection.”

Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign, a group that works to strengthen ties between the US and UN, shares Tingley's assessment that Trump's initial budget proposal is unlikely to pass Congress without substantial changes.

Still, he remains concerned.

More leverage to China

"Even under the best case scenario we anticipate some serious cuts to the foreign affairs account and as a result you will see a scaling back of America's development assistance and humanitarian response and that will mean that regions and countries that are key to American interests are further destabilized," said Yeo.

UN Logo und Hauptgebäude in New York (Getty Images/AFP/E. Dunand)

Could the US be in line for a reduced role in the UN?

He added: "Every dollar we cut in development and humanitarian aid just gives more leverage to China and other countries that are key strategic players in the world.”

Coupled with whatever cuts will ultimately materialize, the Trump administration will likely also change how it dispenses foreign aid, said Tingley.  

"I predict more of a pivot towards the strategic use of foreign aid. Your straight humanitarian aid type project, which countries like Germany are some of the leaders in the world might not see the same investment" under the Trump administration, he noted.

Retreat would leave vacuum

What could also loom on the horizon is a diminished US role in the United Nations after Donald Trump had not only made plain repeatedly that he holds the UN specifically and multilateral organisations generally in low esteem, but since his administration has so far also clearly kept the UN at arms length.

That's why it does not come as a big surprise that according to media reports the Trump administration could drastically slash its contributions to the UN.

This is important because Washington was not just the driver behind the founding of the UN, but again is also the organisation's biggest individual contributor - which gives the US big sway in what's happening there.  

"There are lots of problems with the United Nations, but perhaps the Trump administration could use their energy to help reform and changes," said Tingley. "But a retreat from participation in the UN is just going to open up a vacuum for other countries that the US would rather not have as much in charge."

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