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What Trump’s foreign aid cuts would mean for global democracy

The government-funded International Republican Institute, a nonprofit, supports democratic efforts like this voter education campaign in Burma. International Republican Institute, CC BY-SA

What Trump’s foreign aid cuts would mean for global democracy

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would slash State Department spending by 28 percent, drastically reducing U.S. foreign aid flows.

Will he prevail? Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, has said bluntly “It’s not going to happen.” But the White House’s proposal is emblematic of an ongoing, broader foreign policy shift.

Specifically, Trump’s actions and comments suggest a deep skepticism regarding support for democracy abroad. Consequently, democracy assistance – a relatively small but often pivotal type of foreign aid on which the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department plan to spend US$2.72 billion in 2017 – seems likely to be hit hard.

If it is, U.S. foreign policy under Trump will look fundamentally different than it has under previous presidents dating back at least to Ronald Reagan. What’s more, my research suggests that the shift spells trouble for democracy around the world.

Although U.S. democracy assistance is not perfect, drastic budget cuts would sever a lifeline to pro-democracy activists around the world.


What is democracy aid?

Democracy assistance is a type of foreign aid the U.S. government funds in nearly 100 countries with the explicit goal of supporting democracy. Whether it consists of encouraging women to run for office in Kyrgyzstan or building the capacity of local civil society organizations in Tunisia, this form of assistance always aims to enhance some aspect of democracy. It supports transitions to democracy and shores up existing democratic institutions.

Democracy assistance began in the 1980s. Until that point, the U.S. government supported overseas political parties and dissidents covertly and on an ad hoc basis. In 1983, the United States established the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a quasi-private foundation dedicated to supporting democracy abroad. As the Cold War ended, USAID and the State Department also began funding democracy assistance consistently.

These institutions, which I examine in “The Taming of Democracy Assistance,” my book on the topic, often don’t deliver money or services directly. Instead, they fund a variety of American and international nonprofits (and a few for-profit organizations). Ideally, funding democracy assistance via nonprofits and other nongovernmental entities helps insulate it from U.S. government influence. Of course, that is not always so simple in practice.

Democracy assistance flows into nonprofits and other institutions often known by their abbreviations. Foreign Policy Research Institute, CC BY

Democracy assistance rarely grabs headlines. Some of its critics argue that it involves meddling in other countries’ elections (allegedly with both a right-wing and left-wing bias), implying an equivalence to Russia’s actions during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. My research suggests otherwise.

Democracy assistance efforts are indeed sometimes partisan, but have grown markedly less so since the Cold War ended. Indeed, as I explained on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, it has become rare for these programs to promote radical political change today. In some cases, democracy assistance has even reinforced authoritarian regimes, as was the case when international aid offered support for a parliament in Azerbaijan that was not freely elected.

What’s at stake?

Despite these flaws, eliminating democracy assistance projects could wreak damage to democracy three ways.

First, scholarly evidence on U.S. democracy assistance finds that it is, on average, associated with increases in countries’ overall levels of freedom. Second, research also suggests that democracy assistance can help countries maintain peace after civil conflict. Third, specific types of democracy assistance – such as support for international and domestic election observers – have proven successful at deterring electoral fraud.

A good example of how U.S. democracy assistance has successfully helped advance democratic transitions comes from Serbia’s nonviolent student movement in 2000. There, the brutal dictator Slobodan Milošević – guilty of war crimes associated with the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia – was brought down by a popular movement supported with training from U.S. nonprofits.

Cutting democracy assistance would also represent a major break in U.S. foreign policy.

The origins of American democracy promotion date back at least a century. On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson made his famous speech telling Congress, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Leaders from both major U.S. political parties have sought ever since to promote democracy overseas with the logic that it is the right thing to do as well as the smart thing to do.

Among other things this credo stems from the belief that democracy fosters peaceful relations between nations.

Participants in this Mayan ceremony in Guatemala’s Quiche province wanted to discourage illegal campaign activity in the 2015 elections held there. Sara Barker/National Democratic Institute, CC BY-ND

Of course, the United States counts among its allies many authoritarian states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In such cases, past U.S. presidents have mixed pro-democracy rhetoric with anti-democracy policies. Yet President Trump is abandoning even the pro-democracy rhetoric, and activists are worried.

As one Egyptian journalist recently said about this situation, “It’s not a big space, but the rhetoric gives us some space.”

What’s next?

If the U.S. democracy assistance project survives the Trump administration but spending declines sharply, a recent study suggests two lessons about how it could spend the remaining funds most effectively.

First, this kind of aid works best in countries that are already partly free. In such settings, domestic actors are likely to be seeking international support and aid is less likely to be co-opted by authoritarian governments.

Second, democracy assistance programs tend to be the most successful in countries where the U.S. government can back them up with diplomacy. By this logic, it makes more sense to support democracy assistance in Tunisia, where democratically elected leaders cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism, than it does in Egypt, where the United States maintains a close relationship with the military dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Research on U.S. democracy assistance suggests that continuing to aid democracy abroad is consistent with a century-long tradition in U.S. foreign policy and that it can advance democracy worldwide. However, even with continued support, American democracy promoters face clear challenges. These challenges include problems with the state of democracy in the United States that have been building for several years as well as growing restrictions on civil society activity and foreign aid around the world.

Even barring steep spending cuts, democracy assistance is likely to have a difficult next four years.