United States President Donald Trump wants to end foreign aid to countries that consistently vote against it at the United Nations. Despite cries of “extortion” and “bribery” from outraged aid recipients, this is a damn fine idea of Trump’s.
Internationally, it’s a wake-up call to a host of nations that think of Uncle Sam as their all-year-round Father Christmas who doesn’t even demand that they be good boys and girls. And, similarly, to the many Americans, not only in the Trump administration, who see global politics in simplistic transactional terms – we pay, you dance – it’s going to prove to be an unexpected bucket of cold water to the face.
Whatever the altruism that it is packaged in, aid is not only a humanitarian project by nations. There are reciprocal economic benefits and there is, of course, the influence that money buys.
On the expenditure side of that equation, the US is not as unassailable as Trump thinks. The US, depending on how you slice-and-dice definitions of aid, doled out $31bn-$43bn in 2015. China’s murky aid budget was at least $38bn, while that of the European Union was $92bn. Britain, with a much smaller population than the US, has a $19bn aid budget.
Unlike Trump bemoaning how meagre the bang the US gets for its buck, the Chinese must be delighted with the returns they get. This week, the Dominican Republic hastily cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, after being offered a $3.1bn package in “loans and investment” by China.
In contrast, there is a slew of countries that have been sucking for decades at the teat of American munificence, without delivering anything in return. Among them, in Africa, are Burundi and South Africa, and to a lesser extent Zimbabwe.
Along with the likes of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Cuba, and Bolivia, these are the 10 countries that most often align against the US. With the exception of SA, none is a functioning democracy with a defensible human rights record – what Trump would probably label “shithole” countries.
Chinese officials would never be as crass as Trump, despite anecdotally being notoriously disparaging about Africans behind their backs. China’s diplomatically savvy courtesy extends to complete indifference towards governance failures, human rights abuses, and rigged elections.
Take Zimbabwe. During the past two decades, US aid of about a $150m a year was all devoted to projects aimed at improving food security in a country where every social indicator – from life expectancy to extreme poverty – was on rapid rewind.
China’s support for the government of deposed president Robert Mugabe is much more difficult to quantify, since Chinese investment and aid are virtually synonymous. But it amounts to billions and was rewarded with Zimbabwe’s political fealty in international forums.
So, pardon my guffaws when George Charamba, press secretary in the Zimbabwean presidency, this week explained the lofty reasons for his country so often votes against the US: “We never pander to the foreign policy of another power,” he said, “Whether it is America or any other power ... we vote on the basis of principle.”
Far more honest was a former Sierra Leone ambassador to China, who a few yers back explained awhy Africa prefers China’s “unconditional” aid to that coming from the West. “The Chinese don’t hold meetings about environmental impact assessment, human rights, bad governance and good governance ... they don’t set high benchmarks.”
But, as the adage goes, if it seems too good to be true, it is. Nothing is unconditional, as the unabashed about-face on Taiwan by the Dominican Republic shows.
There is nothing innately wrong, then, in Trump – ever the businessman looking at the bottom line – bemoaning what he perceives to be a poor return on investment. The nations that have been put on notice will, at the very least, have to weigh in their dealings with the US, as they already have to do with China, the monetary price of their principles.
But Trump – whose political morality has all the nuance of that of a Great White Shark – is likely going to be disappointed. It is never a simple equation of aid equals votes. There are not only competing suppliers of aid, with conflicting ideologies, but there are shifting alliances based on ever-changing strategic considerations.
The 13 biggest beneficiaries of US foreign assistance voted in line with US positions at the UN an average of just 26.5% of the time in 2017, according to the State Department analysis. Exclude Israel and that drops to 20.9%.
Last year the UN voted by 128-9, with 35 abstentions, to reject the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The vote against the US included every single one of its historical allies, except for Australia and Canada, who abstained.
It is a perfidious world, indeed, Mr Trump. And no amount of money – call it aid, or call it bribery or extortion – can buy one enough friends on those occasions that one is completely out of step with everyone else.
Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye