Tillerson’s ‘less is more’ strategy for foreign aid meets bipartisan skepticism in Senate

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearing. (Credit: Trump Campaign/Prachatai/flickr)

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has spent the past two days in Washington defending proposed massive cuts to the foreign affairs budget, using the ‘less is more’ approach.

“Throughout my career, I have never believed, nor have I ever experienced, that the level of funding devoted to a goal is the most important factor in achieving it,” Tillerson said in prepared remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. “Our budget will never determine our ability to be effective – our people will.”

Critics responded by characterizing the proposal to slash the budget for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) by about 30 percent as “reckless” and “divorced from reality.” Senators also made clear that they do not plan to enact the Trump Administration’s proposed level of cuts.

Credit: USGLC

“I think you know that the budget that’s been presented is not going to be the budget we’re going to deal with. It’s just not,” Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in response to Tillerson.

“What comes out of Congress will not resemble what is presented today, so it would be a waste of time to go through it because it’s not what is going to occur.”

Corker admitted that he stopped reading the proposed Trump budget plan after just a few minutes given nobody will take it seriously. That is good news to many campaigning to maintain the $60 billion foreign aid budget. They have been contending that the cuts would endanger millions of people who now depend upon international humanitarian assistance and would also, in time, make the U.S. less secure.

“At a time of growing needs the proposed cuts we believe are immoral and are in the long term costly both to the people in need and U.S. global standing,” said Paul O’Brien, VP for policy and advocacy at Oxfam America, to Humanosphere.

Credit: USGLC

Supporters of overseas assistance funding emphasize that foreign aid takes up less than 1 percent of the total federal budget. The world today is facing refugee and hunger crises that are massive. some of the worst in many decades. The Trump Administration’s proposed cuts would mean that 22.6 million people go without food aid, said Ann Vaughan of Mercy Corps.

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Further, Vaughan and others said, such spending cuts would leave 9 million children without nutrition assistance, cut off more than 5 million farmers from agriculture assistance and generally reduce other means of support for millions of refugees – during a time when the world has a record number of displaced people, more than we’ve seen since World War II.

“What strikes us most about this budget is the way in which it is divorced from the global realities and does not respond to the challenges facing us today,” said Nazanin Ash of the International Rescue Committee.

Senators from both the Republican and Democratic Senators parties agreed, making statements and posing questions critical of the Trump budget. Tillerson defended the reduction arguing that the foreign affairs agencies “have not evolved” in the face of a changing world. U.S. foreign policy, he said, needs to change.

The Trump administration is prioritizing security over aid, Tillerson said. The strategy, he said, is to shift funds from the foreign affairs budget to increase funding of the Defense Department. The goal is to alter the way the State Department and USAID work to better align with the new administration’s emphasis on national security. Put another way, helping people overseas doesn’t fit an “America First” mindset.

The argument did not convince most in the Senate. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that the U.S. will lose influence, the sometimes even more powerful if less evident influence of exerting ‘soft power’ through helping those in need, if the proposals are enacted. Leahy says the Trump approach is leaving a geopolitical void that China and Russia will try to fill, something that over the long run will make the country less safe. His colleague Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was even more blunt with his rejection of Tillerson’s argument.

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“I think this budget request is radical and reckless when it comes to soft power,” Graham said.

Humanitarian aid groups remain worried, despite the strong Congressional support for foreign aid. In previous administrations, the executive branch usually puts forward a proposal for more aid spending that is then pared back by Congress, explained O’Brien. Trump did exactly the opposite, forcing Congress to justify spending more money. It’s not clear to many how this new kind of political gamesmanship will play out.

“There is bipartisan agreement that a 44 percent cut to humanitarian and development funding is a mistake,” he said. “Trump’s dramatic cuts makes a 10% cut seem reasonable, which is the direction Congress may choose and would have serious impacts on the ground.”

The effects of cuts are easiest to track in the global health budget. The administration’s budget calls for a $2.5 billion reduction in global health programs, the lowest level since 2007. If enacted, such spending cuts will lead to 96,100 additional HIV-related deaths in the first year, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Smaller cuts will still have a negative impact.

Aid groups are devoting a lot of time and energy to maintaining the foreign aid budget. It stands in contrast with efforts a year ago to encourage the U.S. to do more and increase spending. The U.S. is already $26 billion short of paying its ‘fair share’ towards development assistance, according to an analysis by the think tank the Center for Global Development.

“At a time of growing needs the proposed cuts we believe are immoral and are in the long term costly both to the people in need and U.S. global standing,” O’Brien said.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.