US President Donald Trump’s threat to cut aid to developing nations may hurt his own country more than the recipients’. Foreign aid is a relatively low-cost platform for gaining geopolitical influence, and there is very little money involved.
Donor countries buy goods and services from their own producers and donate to impoverished countries, helping them weather a disaster or develop their economies and societies. However, there are strings attached. For example, US aid requires recipient countries to adhere to liberal democracy.
Foreign aid benefits both donor and recipient. The donation of food (usually surplus produce) to sub-Saharan African countries has not only prevented widespread starvation but has gained influence. For example, the nine countries that voted with the US against the United Nations General Assembly resolution opposing the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel have received aid from or have been dependent on the US for their socio-economic well-being.
Foreign aid is seldom free. Recipient countries pay an economic and political price. Granting aid is like “giving someone a fish” — after it is eaten, the recipient country begs for more because it does not have the resources or skills to “fish” itself. As a result, countries that rely on foreign aid remain largely underdeveloped.
Countries opt for principle over pragmatism
The geopolitical price is equally costly, as demonstrated by Trump’s recent threat to cut aid to those 128 countries that supported the UN resolution on Jerusalem. Many of those countries receive US aid and are staunch allies of Washington. But they decided they would rather risk losing US aid than vote against their principles.
In most of the developing world, national boundaries were inherited from former colonial masters. Intentionally or coincidentally, the boundaries of newly independent countries enclosed warring tribes who had been fighting each other for millennia. As long as such animosities show no sign of abating, any attempt at securing a consensus on economic development and governance architecture is nearly impossible. For example, such countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo appear to be in perpetual poverty and underdevelopment because of continuous tribal warfare.
For those countries, Trump’s threat should be a wake-up call: Depending on aid from richer countries is unsustainable and harmful to their development and well-being. In this regard, they should set aside differences and cooperate to forge a development path of learning “how to fish.” The journey would be a slow and painful to be sure, but it would pay huge dividends in the long run, economically, politically and socially.
No nation, including the US, can function, let alone be “great,” without international cooperation.
Threatening nations for no reason other than their failure to be sufficiently submissive is a raw show of brute force that will have dire consequences. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, and President Trump are being ridiculed and losing support on the international stage. If it does not reverse course, the US may become isolated. Trump says he doesn’t care, but he should. No nation, including the US, can function, let alone be “great,” without international cooperation.
The fact of the matter is that the US needs the international community to ease worsening tensions such as the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, and bullying smaller countries or unnecessarily labeling China and Russia (which do not share America’s values) as “revisionist powers” will not gain many — if any — allies to its cause.
Whether Trump likes it or not, he needs both China and Russia to help defuse the North Korea nuclear issue. His “fire and fury” threat, if actually unleashed on North Korea, would destroy unthinkable amounts of property and kill millions of people, including Americans. What’s more, a pre-emptive strike against North Korea might draw China and Russia into the fray, possibly triggering World War III. Should Trump follow through on his threat of “wiping North Korea off the map,” he will surely be condemned by history and the majority of Americans.
The perils of ‘Rambo’ diplomacy
History tells us that nations that became arrogant, bullying and over-leveraged ended in demise. Rome, which dominated Europe for more than 800 years, collapsed because of its arrogance. The same could be said of successive Chinese dynasties of the past. The British Empire collapsed because of its overreach and over-leveraging. The US may follow this trajectory if it continues to practice “Rambo” diplomacy.
Spending huge amounts of money on arms to defend a “might is right” policy takes away much-needed funds for infrastructure repair and improving educational and health-care services. Trump himself said the US needs more than US$1 trillion to fix the country’s crumbling roads, bridges, airports and others. Efficient transportation and a healthy and well-trained labor force are essential to compete in an increasingly globalized economy.
Cutting ties with both partners and competitors will not sustain long-term, stable economic growth for the US. Its external, public and consumer debts are too high, all three exceeding 100% of gross domestic product.
Over-leveraging increases the cost of borrowing and decreases domestic consumption. So even though the US economy grew by more than 3% year on year in the third quarter of 2017, that may be a “blip” rather than a trend. Indeed, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund predict a “new mediocrity,” with the Group of Seven economies (of which the US is a member) growing at between 1.5% and 2% annually during the next five years.
Trump’s ‘America first’ policy polls negatively
Further, Trump’s “America First” policy has already alienated much of the world and divided US society. According to a Pew Poll, more and more countries view the US negatively because of Trump. Protests against him in the US have become more widespread, with many people holding up signs saying “Trump is not my president.” His personal rating in the US has dropped below 40%.
His decision to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv is opposed by two-thirds of Americans, albeit divided along party lines. More than 70% of Democrats were against the move while an equal percentage of Republicans supported the embassy-relocation policy.
Trying to bully weaker and aid-dependent nations into submission may have the opposite effect, as shown by the large number of recipient nations that for the UN Jerusalem resolution, according to the findings of the US-based Pew International opinion poll.
The Egyptian foreign minister could have been speaking for most if not all recipient nations that they would not sacrifice principle for aid. With 14 of the 15 members of the UN Security Council voting against Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, the US seems to be isolated.
With its confrontational stance, the United States might be bullying itself into isolation, “Making America Worse instead of Great Again.” The US needs international cooperation to acquire sustainable long-term economic growth and global hegemony. Insufficient domestic demand requires access to external markets if Trump is to realize his “America First” policy objectives.