WASHINGTON — America’s budget crisis at home is forcing the first significant cuts in overseas aid in nearly two decades, a retrenchment that officials and advocates say reflects the country’s diminishing ability to influence the world.
As lawmakers scramble to trim the swelling national debt, both the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate have proposed slashing financing for the State Department and its related aid agencies at a time of desperate humanitarian crises and uncertain political developments. The proposals have raised the specter of deep cuts in food and medicine for Africa, in relief for disaster-affected places like Pakistan and Japan, in political and economic assistance for the new democracies of the Middle East, and even for the Peace Corps.
The financial crunch threatens to undermine a foreign policy described as “smart power” by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one that emphasizes diplomacy and development as a complement to U.S. military power. It also would begin to reverse the increase in foreign aid that President George W. Bush supported after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as part of an effort to combat the roots of extremism and anti-American sentiment, especially in the most troubled countries.
Given the relatively small foreign aid budget — it accounts for one percent of federal spending overall — the effect of the cuts could be disproportional.
The State Department already has scaled back plans to open more consulates in Iraq, for example. The spending trend has also constrained support for Tunisia and Egypt, where autocratic leaders were overthrown in popular uprisings. While many have called for giving aid to these countries on the scale of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild European democracies after World War II, the administration has been able to propose only relatively modest investments and loans, and even those have stalled in Congress.
“There is a democratic awakening in places that have never dreamed of democracy,” Clinton said Friday. “And it is unfortunate that it’s happening at a historic time when our own government is facing so many serious economic challenges, because there’s no way to have a Marshall Plan for the Middle East and North Africa.”
With the administration and Congress facing a deadline for still deeper cuts in spending, government programs across the board face the ax, from public education to the military, but proposed cuts to the State Department and foreign aid come on top of an $8 billion reduction in April, the single largest cut to any one department under the deal that kept the government from shutting down.