The Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the International Affairs Budget would slash U.S. foreign aid to levels not seen since the ’70s and ’90s. Foreshadowing these proposed cuts, President Trump remarked during his campaign that America should “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us.”
In a March 2016 interview, Trump also commented on the purported futility of foreign aid as he spoke about building schools in Iraq: “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 yet we can’t build a school in Brooklyn… at what point do you say, hey, we have to take care of ourselves.”
How does President Trump’s position on overseas assistance compare with other U.S. presidents? Here are five quotes from former presidents on foreign aid:
- George W. Bush, NPR interview, April 2017 — “When you have an entire generation of people being wiped out, and the free world turns its back, it provides a convenient opportunity for people to spread extremism.”
- Barack Obama, Vox interview, Feb. 2015 — “If you look at our foreign assistance as a tool in our national security portfolio as opposed to charity, and you combined our defense budget overall with our diplomatic budget and our foreign assistance budget, then in that mix, there is a lot more we should be doing.”
- Ronald Reagan, White House remarks, Oct. 1987 –“You know the excuses: We can’t afford foreign aid anymore, or we’re wasting money pouring it into these poor countries, or we can’t buy friends—other countries just take the money and dislike us for giving it. Well, all these excuses are just that, excuses—and they’re dead wrong.”
- John F. Kennedy, Remarks upon signing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1962, Aug. 1962 –“The amount of money that is involved in the nonmilitary areas are a fraction of what we spend on our national defense every year, and yet this is very much related to our national security and is as important dollar for dollar as any expenditure for national defense itself.”
- Harry S. Truman, Statement upon signing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1948, Apr. 1948 — “Our program of foreign aid is perhaps the greatest venture in constructive statesmanship that any nation has undertaken. It is an outstanding example of cooperative endeavor for the common good.”
These quotes from former presidents on foreign aid highlight the longstanding history of American engagement overseas. Here are two examples of these sentiments in action: firstly, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1948, otherwise known as the Marshall Plan, played a vital role in helping to rebuild Europe after WWII. Consequently, the European Union is now the largest trading partner of the U.S. Secondly, George W. Bush’s investment in the PEPFAR initiative continues to save countless lives from the scourge of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and is widely acknowledged as a remarkable success.
Foreign aid serves many purposes: ensuring national security, promoting humanitarian values and advancing U.S. economic interests overseas. Disengaging and ceding our leadership in this regard is not in our nation’s best interest. The above quotes from former presidents on foreign aid present a different vision for U.S. leadership overseas than from the isolationist approach outlined by President Trump.
Thankfully, with Trump’s proposal “dead on arrival,” it appears many members of Congress concur with these former presidents on the value of foreign aid and the vital role it plays in pursuit of the national interest.
– Michael Farquharson