In late May, U.S. President Joe Biden submitted his first official budget request to Congress, which included large increases in foreign aid funding. According to the State Department, the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 federal budget request includes $58.5 billion for the Department of State and USAID, an increase of $5.5 billion over the FY 2021 enacted level.
The budget request contains $10.1 billion for global health programs, including approximately $1 billion for global health security programs and support to stop the COVID-19 pandemic. The budget request addresses the climate emergency head on, allocating more than $2.5 billion to international climate programs. FY 2022 allocates more than $10 billion in humanitarian aid to assist vulnerable individuals around the world.
Since the mid-1940s, the U.S. has developed a distinct foreign aid policy. Foreign aid is viewed as critical by U.S. foreign policymakers as a means of achieving their foreign policy objectives. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. offered substantial aid to strategically significant regimes that were conditioned to support the "Free World."
The U.S.'s fragmented foreign aid strategy in the 1940s and 1950s took a dramatic turn in the 1960s. The Foreign Assistance Act, signed in 1961, established the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), through which American foreign aid has been gradually consolidated under a single organization. In an address to Congress on March 22, 1961, then-President John F. Kennedy stated that the U.S. administration and people should assist some countries in maintaining their independence.
With Jimmy Carter's election in 1977, the importance of human rights norms in terms of foreign aid was stressed further. Carter's goal was to give the U.S.'s foreign aid policy a "normative" character. Despite this, the U.S. ignored human rights breaches in several countries where it had “national security interests,” such as Israel.
Ronald Wilson Reagan, who succeeded Carter as president, stressed the U.S.'s leadership and security interests, as did George W. Bush and Donald Trump. The U.S. had to reframe its foreign aid priorities in the 1990s, (re)emphasizing the significance of human rights norms, particularly under Bill Clinton's presidency.
In the 1990s, American foreign aid programs were guided by the mantra "trade, not aid." According to Steven Radelet, director of Georgetown University's Global Human Development Program, the most visible feature of the George W. Bush administration in the 2000s was that U.S. foreign aid surged substantially for the first time since Marshall aid due to 9/11. Foreign aid was viewed as a weapon to combat terrorism and rogue states at the time.
Obama emphasized that human rights were a significant component of foreign aid, too. He stated that foreign aid is one of the pillars of the U.S.'s national security and economic strategy. Moreover, during Obama's senatorial tenure, he voted in favor of legislation that would have curtailed military funding to states that employ child soldiers.
However, during his presidency, he avoided imposing sanctions on four states (Chad, Congo, Sudan and Yemen) that were alleged to be using child soldiers. He claimed that cutting funding to these states, where the U.S. has significant security interests, would harm national security.
Following his election in 2016, Donald Trump sought to exert direct influence over recipient state leaders and compel them to do what he wanted; however, even Trump accomplished this through normative discourse and references to human rights and democratic norms, as the U.S. has historically been the engine of liberal-internationalist rhetoric. He also felt it necessary to maintain foreign aid in order to utilize it as a diplomatic tool, notably against China.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in one of his speeches that they will put aid at the center of the U.S.'s foreign policy. He also added that "the U.S. is not immune to world problems. It's just in the U.S.'s best interests to figure out how to accomplish these problems more successfully."
Besides that, when we analyze Biden's 2011 vice presidential address on the occasion of USAID's 50th anniversary, we notice that he appears to be a proponent of foreign aid. As Kennedy did, he described the aid as "a peaceful revolution of hope." He also reiterates that if the U.S. fails to address the problems of the impoverished, the U.S.'s security and prosperity will be adversely affected too.
The statements of both Biden and Blinken can be regarded as early indications of the Biden administration's foreign aid inclinations, and it is clear that the U.S.'s attitude toward development and foreign aid policy will alter during Biden's tenure in a positive way compared to Trump’s term. Moreover, Biden is determined to rejoin multilateral organizations and reclaim the U.S.'s leadership role in the world. So, resuming foreign aid would assist the Biden administration in achieving this goal.
Development experts frequently argue that rebuilding USAID and the State Department, establishing USAID as the lead agency for the global pandemic response, and boosting the agency's status on the National Security Council would all likely be part of Biden's foreign aid policy initiatives. More importantly, some experienced development experts have raised concerns about the "Journey to Self-Reliance" paradigm, which has been perceived as a code term for budget cuts. Thus, the paradigm for USAID's "Journey to Self-Reliance" is unlikely to meet Biden's promise.
There are continuing debates about the Biden administration's foreign aid strategy, particularly over whether the Biden administration should take a bold approach and embrace significant reforms or adopt a more cautious approach. Even though some believe that going big will require a reorganization of the U.S.'s foreign aid system, others think that the State Department and USAID already have a lot of work to do simply restructuring and staffing existing models – and that a wide-scale reorganization would stress the system excessively.
The apparent difference is that there would be no threat of significant budget cuts, as there was during Trump's presidency. In essence, while Biden's foreign aid attitude appears to be "fundamental," as some commentators underline, it may exemplify "Obama's comeback."
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