America’s Surprisingly Bipartisan Love of Foreign Aid

Fun fact: in these hyper-partisan times (to say the least), there is one area that continues to receive surprisingly bipartisan support: foreign aid. Despite the efforts of our isolationist administration to slash the foreign aid budget by a third, the GOP-controlled Congress maintained the budget from last year at $35 billion—the largest in absolute terms of any country in the world (though several countries, mostly in Northern Europe, donate more as percentage of their GDP).

In fact, programs for improving maternal health and combating tuberculosis actually saw increases in funding, and the Trump Administration recently announced a significant–and universally surprisingly–increase in U.S. foreign aid, as The New York  reported:

With little fanfare, Mr. Trump signed a bill a little over a week ago that created a new foreign aid agency — the United States International Development Finance Corporation — and gave it authority to provide $60 billion in loans, loan guarantees and insurance to companies willing to do business in developing nations.

The move was a significant reversal for Mr. Trump, who has harshly criticized foreign aid from the opening moments of his presidential campaign in 2015. Since becoming president, Mr. Trump has proposed slashing $3 billion in overseas assistance, backed eliminating funding for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and taken steps to gut the United States Agency for International Development, the State Department agency that dispenses $22.7 billion a year in grants around the world.

The president’s shift has less to do with a sudden embrace of foreign aid than a desire to block Beijing’s plan for economic, technological and political dominance. China has spent nearly five years bankrolling a plan to gain greater global influence by financing big projects across Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.

Setting aside the realpolitik behind this move, it is worth flagging how this big new aid agency resulted from a bipartisan act of Congress that included die-hard Republican lawmakers, of the sort who would normally write off foreign aid as a waste of taxpayer money.

Perhaps just as surprisingly is that this level of broad, bipartisan support for foreign aid is not new: foreign aid more than doubled under George W. Bush. America’s AIDS relief program, PEPFAR, provides over 14 million people with access to life-saving medicine, while funding for anti-malaria measures has saved another six million lives.  And while the administration continues to propose slashes to foreign funding, Congress continues to stand firm; as recently as last month, Democrats and Republicans rejected an effort by the executive branch to claw back $3 billion allocated for foreign funding.

Even right-wing Republicans like Ted Yoho of Florida, who ran in opposition to foreign aid—often capitalizing on the fact that Americans exaggerate how much we spend on it—have often reversed their position once in office. In fact, the erstwhile Tea Party Republican was one of the principal sponsors of the act establishing the new $60 billion aid agency.

There are several reasons why something as seemingly polarizing as foreign aid remains stubbornly bipartisan. These include an attachment to American global leadership, a genuine sense of moral duty, and the perception of foreign aid as furthering national interest (part of the reason it got a boost under W. Bush is that the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan prompted conservatives to rethink the reliance on military power as the sole avenue of global influence).

Of course, these reasons also betray cynical motivations, as reinforced by Trump’s motive behind this latest aid agency: to further influence in certain countries and regions, especially against foreign rivals; to back projects that may enrich U.S. companies and businesses that provide these services; or to maintain a veneer of morality as a smokescreen over immoral policies.

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