There are perhaps no better examples of the benefits of American foreign aid than Japan, South Korea and Germany. These are countries that once languished in poverty, often falling beholden to imperial powers in their respective modern histories. But in the post-WWII era of liberal globalization, American aid laid the foundation upon which those countries would grow and thrive.
As with most things regarding wealth, the benefits of post-war American investment were not spread equally, however, and many of the countries considered developing today were largely untouched by investment and liberal ideology. The African continent remembers European colonization all too well, and it was a much darker picture for people in colonized countries like Algeria or Rwanda. What made American aid so beneficial was the oversight and establishment of liberal economic policies targeted at creating democratic civil infrastructure. While the conditions in countries which the U.S. supplies aid vary, discrepancies in the effectiveness of aid are often measured out of context or without regard for the multitude of factors at play.
According to Fox News, President Trump is cutting foreign aid to the Northern Triangle of South America, a triad consisting of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. These countries face internal political and economic hardships such as corruption, conflict and poor governance, and these in turn foster large numbers of migrants seeking asylum from those conditions. The fact that civil life has not entirely collapsed in these places — save for areas of El Salvador — speaks to the weak yet important effect of American aid. It is likely that without aid, the conditions in those countries will only get worse, in turn forcing those countries to choose new allies like China or Russia. China in particular has been voraciously expanding its horizons with heavy investment in developing countries all over the globe, including South America.
A large part of America’s dominance on the global stage is due to their strong foreign ties and ability to bolster those who cannot as readily do so. This dynamic has, for several decades, kept authoritarian superpowers like China and Russia from spreading their ideologies and gaining political footholds in the international community. This is the true danger of isolationism: if America is perceived as unable to fend for others as they claim to be able to, countries that need assistance and powers who can provide will most likely look to each other to meet those needs and desires.
It is clear that the money America sends to these countries is not always being properly utilized, as it seems that whatever system of oversight is being employed is not effective. Aid needs to be used for strengthening existing and building new infrastructure, creating jobs and paying for things like healthcare and education. The reforms are few and far between, which, while frustrating, is understandable given the poor social conditions of these places. Gangs control significant parts of El Salvador and civil strife, poverty and rampant crime plagues all of the countries. This is clearly fueling the migration of people into America.
However, the few semblances of civil life in these countries is bolstered largely by American aid, and removing it will only serve to exacerbate their domestic problems. This will likely catalyze greater levels of migration, the very problem the president complained about in the first place. Critics of this move to cut foreign aid sometimes point to wealthier countries who receive American aid like China, who receives much less than it used to, and Israel, who many claim should not be receiving as much American aid as they do based on their own capacity to be self-sufficient. This situation both reflects disparity in American practices as well as points to a need for drastic reforms with regard to foreign policy.
The situation is undeniably complicated, and no solution will appease everyone. However, reforms like stricter oversight of more targeted funding could provide answers to difficult policy implementations. A more expansionary approach to foreign relations would likely be the best way forward for America, partly because they are the de facto superpower in the world already and maintaining that status requires strong diplomatic ties and ideally strong appeal abroad through partnership and investment, but also partly because the interconnectedness of our world would mean that socioeconomic instability anywhere in the world could have serious ripple effects elsewhere.
This impetus to maintain global economic order is lost on our president, whose view of foreign affairs consists of little more than the slogan “America First.” To fulfill such a simplistic promise requires only that the president’s words and actions reflect disdain for foreign countries, even allies, showing this budget cut to be no more than a political move to appeal to his supporters especially with the 2020 campaign around the corner. This move is reckless and counterproductive, as it will fuel the very problems Trump is attempting to address.
Isolationism in an increasingly globalized world is a mistake, and experts from all walks of the political spectrum can see that. Foreign aid is not just a fruitless void, it is an investment in this country’s future. If America wants to remain the “greatest country on earth,” it has to back that up by being willing to spend more on those in need, not just for the positive international optics but also to show the world that the American way is the right way.