How Trump, by threatening US foreign aid, undermines democracy globally

Robert Delaney says that as the American public focuses on scandals and political brinkmanship over the government shutdown, the Trump administration has subtly undermined agencies the US uses to promote democratic institutions around the world

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 January, 2018, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 January, 2018, 10:56pm

When White House aides are batting away news reports about President Donald Trump’s hush money to a porn star, you know Washington has hit a new low.

Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, insists the president’s relationship with Stephanie Clifford, aka “Stormy Daniels”, wasn’t sexual or romantic. Perhaps they discussed tax policy or international relations.

But the Clifford connection fell off the radar quickly; the US electorate is suffering from outrage fatigue. Since taking office, Trump has, among many other things, lobbed a racial slur at US Senator Elizabeth Warren at an event honouring Native Americans.

Recently, we have been treated to another spectacle of government dysfunction in the form of a shutdown. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer met Trump on Friday, but anyone hoping the meeting would yield a breakthrough is not familiar with Trump’s modus operandi: division generating headlines that feed his ego and undermine discussion of controversies that erupted days or weeks earlier.

Democrats and Republicans have implicated each other for the shutdown, but Trump’s party controls Congress, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell voted against the government funding patch, making it hard to blame the Democrats.

But Washington’s descent drowns out important details in the story of America’s retreat from global leadership.

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Last week, amid the swirl of news around the alleged payment to Clifford and the impending shutdown, it emerged that the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency under the US Department of Health and Human Services, plans to scale back or discontinue work to prevent infectious-disease epidemics in most countries because the agency expects funding for such work to be cut.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out that one of the countries expected to be taken off the agency’s assistance list is China, “where CDC provides technical assistance to the country, which is devoting increasing resources to global health needs”.

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The work the CDC is cutting, which helped create a better response to outbreaks of illnesses like Ebola, is one development initiative carried out under the broadest definition of foreign aid.

There is nothing wrong with wanting a thorough examination of US aid programmes. Bureaucracies that run them can become riddled with inefficiencies, corruption and graft. But we need to keep the effect of US foreign aid in perspective as it relates to the country’s finances.

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An April 2017 report by the Council on Foreign Relations said that though US foreign aid aims “to provide stability in conflicted regions, bolster allies, promote democracy, or contribute to counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts abroad”, these outlays rank near the bottom of all developed countries in terms of its percentage of GDP.

Foreign aid, the think tank said, is key in Washington’s efforts to influence countries to, among other things, support political stability, rule of law, free-market reforms and democratic institutions.

No wonder Trump’s team would want to cut commitments partly in place to uphold governance principles that have kept the president in hot water.

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These principles have led to inquiries into his actions, initiated by the media and institutions like the FBI, and may possibly turn up proof of criminal behaviour.

That they exist in the United States is a headache. Why would he want his government to pay for them to be upheld elsewhere?

Robert Delaney is a US correspondent for the Post based in New York