Dots Unconnected: The Trump Administration National Security Strategy and American Foreign Assistance

What are those who care about the role of U.S. foreign assistance in the world to make of the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy, recently released by the White House?

On one level, this important document, mandated by Congress and generally viewed as an administration’s highest order statement of defense and foreign policy, can be viewed as an ideological screed, laden with political catchphrases (“America First,” “make America great again,” and protecting “the American way of life”).

On another level, a careful reading of the 56-page document yields a range of topics and observations that proponents of foreign assistance might well appreciate, including a positive mention of the Marshall Plan and support for energy programs in the developing world to “lift people out of their poverty.” Aid effectiveness advocates, like the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), can appreciate references that link local input to enduring results and accountability for American taxpayers as well as “prioritize programs that empower reform-minded governments, people, and civil society.” There is even, mirabile dictu, a commitment to “advance women’s equality, protect the rights of women and girls, and promote women and youth empowerment programs.”

So, what, if anything, should we do with this instrument? I have several suggestions.

First, read it! It is important to the foreign assistance community to understand not only the content of a more-or-less quadrennial National Security Strategy, but also the context.  Although the document may not be a best-seller among many of our development colleagues, it will be read carefully, and with consequences, at the State Department, Defense Department, National Security Council, and Office of Management and Budget, as well as in foreign capitals. Each of these will treat the National Security Strategy as a seminal document that will guide – for better or worse – policy and budget decisions that will ultimately shape foreign assistance focus and resource levels.

Plowing through a National Security Strategy can be instructive in how foreign assistance is viewed by senior-most U.S. Government policymakers. It can also be usefully inspirational in motivating the development community to engage forcefully in future year-long National Security Strategy preparation processes. In this regard, and as an aid to putting this year’s approach in context, MFAN Co-Chair George Ingram’s exegesis of the past several strategies is invaluable.

My second suggestion is to carefully dissect serious points of contention that might threaten the core concept of foreign assistance from the document’s rhetorical flourishes. It is easy, when first encountering the Trump Administration’s strategy, to be distracted by the “International Relations 101” version of national security and international power politics. The document argues for “this beautiful vision – a world of strong, sovereign and independent nations, each with its own cultures and dreams,” while ruing the “adversaries [that] exploit our free and democratic system to harm the United States.” The President and his team, duly elected, have every right to hold to this paradigm and draw from it what conclusions they must about national priorities. One can hold to this worldview and still be for or against a robust U.S. foreign assistance regime.

Rather, we must sift through the writing to locate those constructs that potentially undermine foreign assistance as a serious instrument of improving the human condition at scale. One such element is the repeated reference to foreign aid working, primarily if not solely, with “partner” countries that aspire to political as well as developmental partnership with the United States. To wit, “we will prioritize collaboration with aspiring partners that are aligned with U.S. interests.” This version of foreign assistance – a hybrid of current Economic Support Fund (ESF) and Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) approaches – is based on a simplistic assumption that developing nations are vertically integrated entities that either really want to make themselves “winners” [my term], or not. And this strategy appears to want winners, whether citizens have an effective voice in their polities or not, and whether the preferred pool of partners addresses global poverty and maladies or not.

Additionally, while the emphasis on modernized development finance tools is encouraging and sorely needed, “shift[ing] away from a reliance on assistance based on grants to approaches that attract private capital” implies that this is a zero-sum game. More innovative private sector approaches do not necessarily need to come at the expense of grant-based assistance. In fact, blended finance mechanisms should be fully considered to determine how best to employ the right tools at the country and sector levels to support effective transition from development aid.

This brings me to a final suggestion for the international development community: engage, engage, engage with policymakers in the Administration around this document. First, we need to engage to better understand exactly what some of the National Security Strategy phrases mean. Then, we need to engage to explain how U.S. foreign assistance actually works. Most important, we need to engage to connect the dots better between this document and current foreign aid practice and theory. If the White House really does want to accomplish some of the objectives outlined above – like lifting people out of poverty, empowering civil society, and promoting women’s rights – folks there need to understand how effective well-designed foreign aid can be in reaching those goals.

Despite the initial rhetorical shock in the Trump Administration National Security Strategy, tantalizing fragments of insight abound in the paper, many of which would suggest an openness to strengthened U.S. foreign aid programs. It cites the need to “strengthen global health security,” and the authors recognize that other nations are “competing” to “expand influence” with their foreign aid. The strategy also notes that terrorism is not a disconnected millennialist phenomenon, but correlated with “weak governance” and “the basic needs” of people.

In short, there is no absence of raw material in this new National Security Strategy on which supporters of foreign assistance can engage, educate, advocate, and connect critically related dots. There is also plenty of material in the document to suggest that we would avoid such engagement at our peril and that of many of the world’s poor and marginalized.

James Kunder is the former Acting Deputy Administrator of USAID, an MFAN Executive Committee Member, and an affiliated expert with The Lugar Center.

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