What Europe can teach America

By Edward Luce

With the exception of soccer, many Americans believe they have little to learn from Europe. Donald Trump’s continuous sniping taps into a deep-seated stereotype about Europeans. They talk a big moral game. But they cannot walk the geopolitical walk. Much of this is true. No European carrier group patrols the Pacific — nor is ever likely to again. In terms of defence, no country matches the 3.6 per cent of GDP that America spends. But some of it is plain wrong.

On foreign aid, the picture is the opposite. Members of the OECD club of rich countries have long pledged to give 0.7 per cent of their GDP in aid — in much the same way that Nato members commit to spending 2 per cent on defence. The US spends just 0.18 per cent of its GDP on aid — and Trump is looking to slash that by a third. The UK spends exactly 0.7 per cent and Germany is just shy at 0.66 per cent. Between them, Germany and the UK’s aid budgets dwarf America’s. Spending on diplomacy is also going in the other direction. Again, Trump wants to eviscerate the state department’s presence in the world.

Who cares, Trump supporters ask. The answer starts in the Pentagon. Jim Mattis, Trump’s increasingly sidelined defence secretary, speaks for most of America’s generals when he argues that aid is a far cheaper alternative to weaponry. “If you don’t fund the state department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition,” he told Congress. The 1947 Marshall Plan may have been the biggest aid programme in history. But it cost a fraction of what it would have taken to reverse Joseph Stalin’s inroads into western Europe. Today’s challenge is more complex. It comes in two forms. First, migrants are heading north into Europe and the US and fuelling the fires of populism. Second, China is winning the soft power great game in much of the developing world — from Africa to Latin America — with its infrastructural largesse. At the turn of the century less than a fifth of development financing came from China. That has risen to three quarters. The rest of us, including the World Bank, are now minnows by comparison.

This is where Europe’s plans are relevant to the US. The European Commission has pledged to increase its aid spending by 30 per cent between 2021 and 2027 — mostly to stem the flow of migrants through north Africa. Some of this may be questionable — not least the idea of setting up “processing centers” in countries such as Libya. Anything that is enthusiastically endorsed by Italy’s Matteo Salvini should give us deep pause. But it is going up. Making it work is essential to Europe’s regional security. By contrast, Trump wants to cut US aid by the exact same amount. US programmes in countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, which are blighted by kleptocracy and gang warfare, would be hard hit. More humans would travel north. More humanitarian catastrophes would pile up on America’s borders. Trump also wants to link foreign aid to countries’ voting records at the UN, such as whether they endorse the US embassy’s move to Jerusalem. Of course, China does much the same (which is why the number of countries that recognise Taiwan is dwindling fast). But it is doing so on a larger and rising budget. When he was trying to sell his plan to a sceptical public, George C Marshall said: “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.” He might also add that it was cheaper than war. As Ronald Reagan said when he directed aid to Marxist-run Ethiopia: “A hungry child knows no politics.” Trump is breeding a global generation of anti-Americans.

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