In his new budget blueprint, President Trump proposed cutting 37 percent from the budget of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (or USAID) to offset the costs of increasing defense spending. Many claim this would sacrifice diplomatic power for military power, but things are not always as they seem.
President Trump is proposing targeted cuts to one of the most progressive and globalist parts of our bloated government. The reaction to his proposal reveals just how progressive our foreign policy has become.
Let’s Talk About Foreign Aid
The conventional and simplistic argument from many who oppose this idea is that all State Department dollars are equal and foreign aid is diplomacy. But this is not the case. At best, foreign aid is a tool of economic power to use in diplomacy. Trump’s executive order on border security includes a paragraph about looking for aid to use as leverage, and he seems to be one of the few statesmen aware that we can use America’s economic power, whether foreign aid or trade deals, to achieve good things for the American people through diplomacy.
Sometimes foreign aid is a part of the long game that is American soft power—a game that exceeds the scope of individual diplomatic negotiations in the traditional sense. This is what public diplomacy officers, or “experts in cross-cultural relations and communications who build public awareness and promote U.S. interests abroad,” do at the State Department. They spend U.S. taxpayer money to keep positive relations with foreign peoples to enable diplomacy. This use of aid money for soft power may not be as effective as private business at achieving its purpose, but it seems fairly obvious that with some peoples and in some circumstances, American taxpayer money may be used in this way to support diplomacy.
But the president is talking about cutting foreign aid at its worst. The foreign aid he proposes cutting is managed by an agency animated by progressive, globalist foreign policy thinking that the president has repeatedly rejected.
USAID’s mission is to “partner to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing our security and prosperity.” They repeat themselves in their explanation, saying this “mission statement highlights two complementary and intrinsically linked goals: ending extreme poverty and promoting the development of resilient, democratic societies that are able to realize their potential.” On the surface, all of this seems linked only to the good of non-Americans.
Only at the end of its “who we are” page does USAID try to connect this to U.S. interests, saying “USAID’s efforts directly enhance American—and global—security and prosperity.” Even then, global interests are elevated to the same level as those of our country.
Another website related to USAID continues to show just how detached this agency’s goals are from our national interest. An employment advertisement for a “Democracy Officer” says: “USAID has supported democratic development around the globe [through] a broad range of programs covering justice, human rights, and peace and security; the development of democratic institutions in civil society, media, labor, local governments, political parties, elections and legislatures; and good governance initiatives to fight corruption and improve government effectiveness and accountability.” Noticeably absent is any mention of American interests.
Democracy officers are a part of USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance/Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance (DCHA/DRG). This bureau’s strategy “highlights the centrality of participation and accountability to the achievement of human rights and democratic governance. It also recognizes that support for democracy, human rights and governance is vital to the pursuit of freedom and national security and is essential to achieve USAID’s and the U.S. Government’s broader social and economic development goals.”
Again, any mention American interests is noticeably absent. Instead, spreading democracy and supporting foreign people seems paramount. While this language sounds great and tugs on our heart strings, it has more nefarious underpinnings.
Spreading Democracy Is About Spreading Socialism
The standard line accepted by establishment folks on both sides is that “foreign aid supports our moral and humanitarian values, as well as our own security interests. We allocate such assistance to help strengthen democracies, deter war and contain epidemics.” This statement sums up the thinking that “enlarging democracy everywhere for its own sake” is in our national interest because democracy everywhere means global stability.
This thinking is connected to the questionable, postmodern “democratic peace theory.” Some conservatives might be tempted to believe it is similar to the doux commerce thesis of commercial republics put forth by Montesquieu and discussed by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 6, that “the spirit of commerce has a tendency to soften the manners of men.” Others might believe this theory is about nations like ours, built around an understanding of natural rights and individual freedom. According to the principles of our founding, wars or violating the natural rights of foreigners are only legitimate in cases of self-defense. Neither understanding of democratic peace theory would be correct.
Instead, the theory has to do with what progressives mean by democracy. Progressives differ on the particulars, but they agree on a general understanding of the word. They do not mean simply the democratic system of voting, either in referendums or for representatives. Instead they mean something that encompasses all aspects of social life and government. It is a permanent understanding of government and society—the result of history à la Hegel, who says history is working toward the realization of “the moral Whole, the State, which is that form of reality in which the individual has and enjoys his freedom.”
Woodrow Wilson echoes this sentiment when he says that progressive, democratic society is “where men can live as a single community, co-operative as in a perfected, coordinated beehive.” (If you want a view of what this looks like, watch these students confronting Charles Murray.) It is the fullest form of human life—a regime in which the individual finds his greatest happiness as a member perfectly conformed to the community.
If that sounds like socialism, it is because the two are the same. Wilson admitted as much, saying “in fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same. They both rest at bottom upon the absolute right of community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. Men as communities are supreme over men as individuals. Limits of wisdom and convenience to the public control there may be: limits of principle there are, upon strict analysis, none. The difference between democracy and socialism is not an essential difference, but only a practical difference—is a difference of organization and policy, not a difference of primary motive.”
All of the leading progressive thinkers in America—Wilson, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and Teddy Roosevelt—saw democracy this way. It was not small “d” democracy as a system supporting republican government. It was big “D” Democracy, a way of life that encompassed all things. Like communism, it is ultimately universal and global.
How This Applies to Foreign Aid
Democratic peace theory is connected to the progressive understanding that democratic countries will not fight one another because they share the same values. In essence, any truly democratic country will be a part of the global state that is working itself out as the end of history. This is why today’s foreign policy elites claim we must spread democracy for its own sake—it spreads the global state for which we are the progressive vanguard.
USAID is connected to this idea. There are a few limited statements connecting their mission to American prosperity and security, but the truth is plain to see. It might be nice to think that foreign aid is all a part of normal diplomatic measures used by any regime, but it is not. We might like to believe that people believe in globalism for the sake of American economic prosperity, but they do not.
The idea that guides USAID and much of our foreign policy is a part of the larger, progressive takeover of constitutional, republican government that has been in the works for a century. Frankly, anyone with a college education from the last half century has been inoculated or converted to the idea that spreading democracy is an essential part of our foreign policy.
That we cannot see it and that so many of the media and our “the bipartisan class of foreign policy elites,” both institutional and elected, resist Trump’s proposal show how pervasive the progressive infection is in our republic. Much of it stems from the progressive academic institutions and think tanks that dominate the foreign policy field. Conservatives who think “foreign aid is not charity” miss the point, and this is probably why progressive magazines like Foreign Policy see them as useful.
President Trump is right to target USAID for cuts. Hopefully he will in time eradicate its animating idea from our political establishment.