President Donald Trump’s proposal to make massive cuts to the Fiscal Year 2020 U.S. foreign affairs budget has not attracted much attention in Washington. This stands in marked contrast to the widespread, passionate denunciations provoked by very similar proposals in the first two years of his presidency. The muted reaction this year, however, is not a product of diminished interest in U.S. international affairs spending. Instead, it reflects confidence that Congress will reject Trump’s anemic budget request for the third consecutive year. Still, the proposal sends a very clear — and damaging — signal about his priorities, not only to the international community, but also to those working inside his administration.
Congress resoundingly rejected Trump’s first two proposals to substantially cut the foreign affairs budget. When he sought $40.2 billion in FY18, a 30 percent decrease from the previous year, Congress responded by appropriating $54.2 billion, 35 percent more than he requested. The next year, Congress answered Trump’s proposed $41.8 billion in the FY19 foreign affairs budget, a 23 percent cut, with $54.4 billion, 30 percent more than he had allotted.
The foreign policy community’s faith that Congress will do the right thing yet again is not misplaced. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee responsible for the budget of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, bluntly told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that “we’re not going to approve” the president’s proposal to cut the foreign affairs budget by 21 percent. Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, also made clear that the president’s budget was dead on arrival, saying it “would undermine U.S. leadership.” In an increasingly partisan age, support for the foreign affairs budget is bipartisan and bicameral, and the final FY20 budget will almost certainly look a lot like prior years.
But while President Trump’s budget request has no chance of being adopted by Congress, the truth is that it still signifies publicly his evident disdain for these departments and their work, and thereby damages U.S. foreign policy. As former Vice President Joe Biden likes to say, “Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” When the president consistently calls for reducing funding for certain types of programming, his budget tells his own government — as well as foreign ones — that he does not care about those programs.
Democracy and Governance Slashed
This dynamic is clearly at play when it comes to democracy and governance programming. Trump’s FY20 budget request calls for a 50 percent reduction in funding for such programs globally, which is even steeper than the 30 percent cut he proposed in FY19. For the Middle East and North Africa, the region of the world that is arguably most in need of such assistance, the administration’s request would represent a 32 percent cut over what Congress approved in FY18, the last year for which we have complete data for the region and which provides a good indication for what Congress will do in FY20. These requests send an unmistakable message that President Trump neither values nor supports democracy programs.
Based on interviews I conducted with administration officials for the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s annual report on the foreign affairs budget, U.S. government officials are acting on the president’s message. Trump’s obvious skepticism, if not outright scorn, toward U.S. democracy promotion, is empowering those within the State Department who are hostile to such programs to stop their implementation.
U.S. overseas missions within the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs sometimes oppose democracy programs because they can create tension with host governments, and they now feel emboldened to block democracy-related activities. One U.S. official interviewed for POMED’s report said that such programming is “a tough sell with [foreign] posts,” and likened getting their approval to “pulling teeth.”
Foreign Autocrats Get the Message
Foreign officials likewise have received the message that President Trump simply does not care about democratic values abroad. From his budget requests to his embrace of authoritarian leaders and open mockery of democratic processes, Trump has created a more permissive environment for human rights abuses and autocratic crackdowns. While previous administrations often failed on these same issues, and it would be a mistake to conclude that the United States is singularly responsible for political developments abroad, it is surely no coincidence that we have seen increasingly brazen human rights violations and emboldened authoritarian leaders globally since Trump took office.
During the Trump administration, the Saudi government has felt free to murder a U.S. resident working for one of America’s premier newspapers, Jamal Khashoggi. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has effectively made himself president-for-life, while enhancing his already considerable authority, and escalated his crackdown on civil society activists, journalists, and the LGBTQ community. The Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar — in spite of credible reports that his forces had engaged in extrajudicial killings — received the blessing of the White House for an assault on Libya’s capital and the country’s internationally recognized government, during which he bombed a detention center for migrants.
Neither Saudi Arabia, Egypt, nor Libya were thriving democracies in the pre-Trump era, but the administration’s blatant indifference to anti-democratic developments in these countries has only worsened this trend. Indeed, Trump’s embrace of autocrats is a global phenomenon, as demonstrated by his unsettling infatuation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, courting of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and praise for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
None of this is to suggest that Congress’s repeated rejections of the president’s reckless budget cuts are meaningless or unimportant. Without congressional opposition to Trump’s budgets, the United States would be in an even worse position internationally.
But members of Congress should not assume that voting down the president’s budget will be enough. If they are serious about the U.S. role in the world, and the importance of supporting democracy and human rights abroad, they will need to find new ways to compel the administration to respect the will of Congress. Until — and unless — Congress prevails more fully, the United States and our most fundamental values will continue to suffer.