Day: May 1, 2017
I’ve been hesitating to write about Donald Trump’s catastrophic 30% budget cut to the State Department and USAID, because I find myself out of tune with most of my deserving Foreign Service colleagues. Not about the size of the cut: it’s ridiculous. Anything even close to 30% in a single year would render most organizations non-functional, because of their fixed costs. The foreign policy establishment is no different: it has rents to pay, buildings to heat, computers to maintain, and payroll to meet that prevent anything like a 30% cut.
My heresies start with Rex Tillerson’s hesitancy to appoint his subordinates until he has had a look at which jobs he wants to keep and which he wants to abolish. No one intent on cutting positions would want to fill them first. And unlike most commentators, I know that professional Foreign Service and Civil Service officers have stepped up as “actings” to fill the shoes of the missing Trump political appointees, who aren’t likely to be as capable (or as much in tune with my preferences). Of course they should in principle have political guidance, but in its absence they will do what I think is likely best: continue doing what they did before January 20.
Nor do I necessarily disagree with the notion that AID might be folded into State. AID was conceived, and continues to regard itself, as a poverty-reduction organization committed to economic development. But it no longer has anywhere near the resources required to make even a minor dent in global poverty. Nor is it clear that it knows any better how to create jobs abroad than the US government does at home. In any event, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the regional development banks have much greater capacity to reduce poverty than AID, as does the US Millennium Challenge Corporation.
What we need AID money for in the early part of the 21st century is something else. Though I am a diehard Obamista, Mitt Romney had most of it right in a speech on AID during the 2012 campaign: we should be using its resources to help our friends abroad build the institutions required for free enterprise, including protection of property rights and rule of law. What the US needs in abroad is socially and environmentally sensitive capitalist development, including strong civil society organizations that will insist on inclusivity, transparency and accountability. In a word: building states and their civil society counterparts.
AID has the amounts of money that could make a real difference in state- and society-building. But in order to be effective in fraught political environments, it would have to operate under close foreign policy supervision. Thus I’d be happy to see AID–or much of it–folded into the State Department, which is capable of giving the kind of politically sensitive guidance that is difficult when the organizations are separate.
This won’t really happen, any more than the 30% cut. AID’s humanitarian and health programs have strong advocates in Congress, who will keep them intact and separate from State. But much of the rest of AID–in particular the money for its regional economic development activities as well as its “transition” and democratization portfolios–should be given over to state- and society-building under State Department supervision, in particular in the war-torn and fragile states of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.
Look at Latin America and East Asia: with notable exceptions like Venezuela and Thailand, these regions are moving pretty decisively in the democratic, middle income direction, with ups and downs. Brazil is in a trough at the moment, but for those of us who served there 30 years ago, it is vastly improved, both in political and economic terms. The Asia Pacific has developed relatively prosperous, at least semi-democratic states: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia (with reservations), Philippines (even if I don’t like Duterte). Their relatively peaceful evolution is one of the unsung blessings of our time. It is no accident that these are for the most part not the areas of the world generating terrorist threats to the US.
States are a key element of this evolution, as is regional cooperation among them. Washington, stuck in the poverty reduction rut, has not had the funds needed to back either, though it sometimes does well supporting civil society in fragile states, all too often however as an alternative to government. Yes, fold a large part of AID into State, but change the goals it seeks to be commensurate with US interests and the volume of its resources: build viable states that can elaborate and enforce the norms required for modern economies, support cooperation on a regional basis among those viable states, and make sure that civil society has the resources to monitor, evaluate, and advocate for political and economic reform.