Why President Trump’s Blunt Threats to Cut Off US Foreign Aid Are Unique and Counterproductive

December 22, 2017

A consistent theme of President Trump’s campaign and White House tenure is the imperative of ending foreign aid to countries that fail to support America’s policies. These threats were made explicit in advance of the United Nations General Assembly vote on a nonbinding resolution that rebuked the recent US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In a cabinet meeting, President Trump said: “this isn’t like it used to be, where they could vote against you and then you pay them hundreds of millions of dollars and nobody knows what they’re doing.” Regardless of whether the administration makes good on this rhetoric, such posturing undermines US credibility and strains its partnerships with other countries.

Since the foreign aid budget and architecture was established to help stem the spread of communism during the Cold War, it has been an instrument of US foreign policy. Studies of US aid and UN voting have found significant connections between the two, although aid-based punishments or rewards are used sparingly and vary depending on regime type, level of development, and trade relationship between the US and recipient country.

Given that US foreign aid has always been linked to national security, how much of a departure is President Trump’s approach from that of previous administrations? And what should we expect to happen to the 128 countries that voted to express “deep regret” over recent decisions on the status of Jerusalem? (Nine countries voted against the resolution, 35 abstained, and 21 were not present for the vote.)

There are at least three ways in which President Trump’s threat is qualitatively different from previous approaches to tying US aid to the diplomatic actions of recipient countries:

  • The blunt and sweeping nature of the threat. The threat to cut aid to allies and partners was not tied to broader security and foreign policy objectives. While peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a critical US goal, the treatment of this single issue as a litmus test for apparently all forms of foreign assistance to all countries is uniquely broad. Previous aid negotiations have largely occurred around specific issues and targeted leverage; for example, a threat to withdraw aid in the event of a coup or other serious actions that undermine democracy. During the Cold War, the US sometimes traded one-off infrastructure projects for a UN vote or other policy decision (such as cutting ties with Cuba). And US aid to small countries (such as Nauru and Palau) does largely explain their consistent support in UN votes, including this one. Before the contentious vote to include Palestine as a member of UNESCO in 2011, the US exerted diplomatic energy and cut off contributions to UNESCO itself (as required by law), but there were no reports of threats to bilateral aid. The nature of President Trump’s threat also breaks with precedent in the framing of the vote as a personal sign of loyalty or disrespect: US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley wrote in a letter to UN Member States “that the President and US take this vote personally.”
  • The public airing of the threat. The carrot-and-stick negotiations around aid generally take place in private to preserve the broader bilateral relationship. President Trump has embraced an unorthodox approach to foreign policy that combines bold and unpredictable rhetoric with a systematic undercutting of the State Department’s capacity and role. Many USAID posts also continue to go unfilled, weakening the overall US foreign policy toolbox. By making such broad threats publicly while undermining his capacity to act on them, President Trump raises the stakes for his own credibility in future aid and diplomatic negotiations—even if his primary audience was a domestic one. Ironically, the high-profile nature of the threat may have created pressure for countries to abstain or vote for the resolution to avoid the appearance of being too eager to toe the US line.
  • The lack of a realistic implementation plan. Much foreign aid is congressionally mandated—and it is difficult to imagine movement to end programs combating HIV/AIDS and promoting female empowerment because of this UN General Assembly vote. When President Trump’s FY2018 budget proposed to cut development and humanitarian aid by more than 30 percent, members of Congress expressed strong disapproval. But even if aid levels remain the same, the uncertainty itself hampers planning and frays partnerships. There is also the difficulty of developing and implementing a strategy for the many countries that receive foreign aid among the 128 yes votes, including key strategic allies. Egypt, for example, was a sponsor of the original United Nations Security Council resolution that the US vetoed earlier in the week, paving the way for the UN General Assembly vote Thursday. But as of FY2015, Egypt was one of the top five recipients of US foreign aid at nearly $1.5 billion (with a slight reduction to $1.4 billion in the FY2018 request). Even if it were possible, slashing the aid budgets of critical partners in the Middle East like Egypt and Jordan is counter to President Trump’s stated security, development, and humanitarian interests in the region. Not surprisingly, just after the vote, the State Department’s spokeswoman seemed to walk back the threat, saying that “the president has said yesterday that the UN vote is really not the only factor that the administration would take into consideration in dealing with our foreign relations…”

If past experience is any guide, key security partners will continue to receive development and security aid, while poorer countries may be squeezed a little to show that there are consequences for siding against the United States in multilateral forums. More significantly, as other experts have noted, this rhetoric may be paving the way for major cuts to the US contribution to the UN. This risk is heightened by pressure to cut spending to make up for reduced government revenue as a result of the new tax bill. Whether or not there is follow through on President Trump’s threats to aid, the overall effect of this failed gambit is to erode US credibility and nudge countries to seek more reliable and productive partnerships elsewhere.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.