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Trump gets a lot of things wrong on foreign policy, particularly the role of aid

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/flickr)

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s foreign policy views have become clearer thanks to recent conversations with the editorial boards at the New York Times and the Washington Post. Trump expounded on his beliefs of nuclear expansion in South Korea, his distaste for NATO and how he would defeat the Islamic State. The conversations help to flesh out Trump’s world view beyond the campaign trail sound bites.

Among the many things Trump discussed were his views on foreign aid and nation building. He, like others, falls for the rhetorical trap that investment in the development of low- and middle-income countries is at odds with American prosperity. He suggests that the fact that the U.S. faces problems of its own means that resources should be allocated to solve them first before thinking about the rest of the world.

“We have a country that is in bad shape, it’s in bad condition. You look at our inner cities, our inner cities are a horrible mess,” said Trump in his conversation with the Washington Post. “And yet you know I watched as we built schools in Iraq and they’d be blown up. And we’d build another one and it would get blown up. And we would rebuild it three times. And yet we can’t build a school in Brooklyn.

“We have no money for education because we can’t build in our own country,” he continues. “And at what point do you say hey, we have to take care of ourselves. So, you know, I know the outer world exists and I’ll be very cognizant of that but at the same time, our country is disintegrating, large sections of it, especially in the inner cities.”

This brand of oversimplified nationalism that has helped him become the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. He sees foreign aid as a giveaway, like some other Americans do, that does not benefit the U.S. and comes at the cost of things that could be done here. It’s in that second assumption that gives away Trump’s lack of understanding.

At less than 1 percent of the federal budget, foreign assistance is barely a drop in the bucket of U.S. spending. The majority of the budget goes to entitlements and defense. And even with those programs, the issue is less about the amount of money spent, and more about how it is spent. The billions of dollars that go to social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicare are only as effective as the programs themselves.

All of the rhetoric boils down to two fundamental stances a person can take. One is that the world is a better place when every person is doing well. The other view says that home must be doing well before worrying about elsewhere.

Trump’s view of the world also is a sort of rejection of the neoconservative impulses that guided the U.S. invasion in Iraq during the Bush administration. But he is not terribly consistent. The candidate has outright criticized the war in Iraq and also discusses U.S. intervention in the Islamic State that does not entirely rule out the use of nuclear weapons. He told both newspapers that NATO is an obsolete institution that is neither effective nor in the interest of the U.S. Again it is the money that stands out.

“Now, I’m a person that – you notice I talk about economics quite a bit, in these military situations, because it is about economics, because we don’t have money anymore because we’ve been taking care of so many people in so many different forms that we don’t have money – and countries, and countries,” Trump said to the New York Times.

Trump presents international dealings in purely transactional terms. In the simplest Trump logic: U.S. gives NATO money, NATO does a poor job, U.S. wastes money it could be spending at home. As the conversation continued, Trump said that while China is growing economically, the U.S. is “becoming a third-world nation,” a core message of his campaign that also suggests he would “make American great again.”

This worldview is the opposite of other Republican politicians. Sen. Marco Rubio has said numerous times that he thinks that foreign aid investments are valuable to the U.S. and don’t belong in budget conversations because of how little is spent. During the 2012 presidential campaign former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln, both Republicans, made the case for foreign aid in a Politico OpEd.

“A healthier, less impoverished planet is good for all of us,” they wrote. “From an economic standpoint, it allows people to contribute more to the marketplace and lead productive lives. U.S. foreign assistance opens new markets to U.S. goods and services and creates new trading partners and allies.”

And they are not alone in this view. People surveyed across party lines generally support global health programs when asked specific questions about diseases and saving lives. It gets a bit cloudier when the term foreign aid is used, in large part because it is viewed in the same terms set out by Trump.

He continues to frame a U.S. response to terrorism threats with military action, and ignores the strong correlation between poverty and terrorism.

Foreign aid spending is complicated and not always effective, but it’s one tool countries like the U.S. use to alleviate poverty. That needs to become a part of the political conversation, both home and abroad. Because building a school that is blown up in Iraq is as wasteful as building a school in Baltimore that cannot support its student body. The answers are very different, but doing one simply does not come at the cost of the other. Trump and others who try to make that case are skillfully shielding themselves from confronting the policy decisions that will actually make a difference.


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]