Transactionalism and U.S. Foreign Aid

| September 2019
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One of the critical questions we have been grappling with since Donald Trump’s election is the extent to which a transactional calculus would come to predominate in U.S. foreign policy decision-making. Nahal Toosi of Politico, in her story, “Trump Plan Would Steer Foreign Aid to ‘Friends and Allies,’ has obtained the draft of a new presidential directive on American foreign aid which suggests that transactionalism will shift from being a rhetoric device to an actual defining principle as to how the United States will conduct its foreign affairs.

Last year, speaking at the UN General Assembly, Trump declared:

We will examine what is working, what is not working, and whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart. Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.

The draft directive Toosi has seen makes the following points:

  • That the United States should “redirect, reconfigure, reduce or eliminate foreign assistance that is supporting governments and non-state actors under the strong influence of United States competitors and adversaries.”
  • That the United States should “reduce or eliminate foreign assistance to countries and international organizations that are working against or do not support United States interests and focus it on allies and partners that are cooperating with the United States.”

This is a draft, and may not become established policy. Nevertheless, it represents a fundamental shift both in policy and ethics. Aid and assistance is no longer predicated on humanitarian grounds (to those who need it most) and is no longer grounded in the assumptions of the democratic enlargement strategy which assumed that the increase in the number of prosperous, democratic countries would redound to U.S. interests. Instead, it is based on the ethical imperative that one supports friends and punishes enemies, and that aid proffered to others is expected to be compensated back in other areas.

I noted back in January 2019 that the new chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch, described his preferred approach to foreign policy as transactional. This draft directive, if it becomes the basis for policy, would continue that shift and begin to embed it within the organizational structures of the U.S. government, starting with the foreign aid community. It would then represent a further departure from the pre-2016 bipartisan consensus. At any rate, this suggests that, no matter who wins the 2020 race, it will become more difficult to simply “reset” back to a pre-Trump “normal” in how the U.S. conducts its foreign policy.


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