International relations | The World

24 January 2018

The Trump administration’s threat to withhold aid from countries that don’t support US foreign policy is a case study in how to lose friends and alienate allies, Isaac Kfir writes.

On 19 December 2017, the United Nations Security Council voted on an Egyptian-drafted resolution calling on all countries to refrain from establishing diplomatic missions in Jerusalem. The vote unleashed a torrent of vitriolic, petulant statements by President Trump and Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the UN.

Unsurprisingly the US vetoed the Council’s resolution.

Two days later, the UN General Assembly convened an emergency meeting in which 128 member states demanded compliance with Security Council resolutions regarding the status of Jerusalem. Haley responded by warning that the president will be ‘taking names’ and will punish those that voted against the US, primarily by withdrawing aid.

Trump and Haley’s rhetoric underlies his administration’s continued willingness to alienate allies and pick unnecessary fights.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that America’s stock globally is diminishing, especially among key allies. In Japan and South Korea, confidence in President Trump doing the right thing stands respectively at 24 and 17 per cent, whereas it was 78 and 88 per cent under President Obama. In the Philippines, there is growing support for a pivot to China, as doubts about US commitments prevail.

More on this: China is reshaping the liberal order

Trump and Haley’s attack on America’s allies came within hours of the release of America’s National Security Strategy. The Strategy encourages allies to either pursue their own distinctive agendas or seek out new hegemons, allies or supporters – because the US is proving unreliable.

What Haley and Trump miss when it comes to humanitarian aid is that that aid can and does help create stability in fragile environments.

First, aid ensures that crises do not become long-lasting. Second, countries have interests that cannot be secured through military or economic means, as what is needed is good faith and personal relations. Aid can provide this because it shows care and support. To put it cynically, aid can ‘buy’ good relations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has recognised the value of aid. Under his presidency, China has become a major aid provider, even if it is not always dressed up as aid.

The Chinese government regards the country’s development aid program a ‘state secret’, which highlights its national security significance for Beijing.

Data on Chinese foreign aid indicates that between 2000 and 2014, China committed $354 billion for international development, whereas the US provided $395 billion during the same period. These numbers further highlight how the Chinese are slowly catching up to the United States towards Xi Jinping’s goal of making China ‘a leading global power’.

More on this: China’s ‘innovative and pragmatic’ foreign aid

If Trump is to follow through with his threats to punish those that vote against the United States, the US would have to cease its aid to Egypt, which stands at over one billion dollars, as well as its aid to Pakistan and other fragile regimes. This would create an opening for China and Russia, as these two countries move into every space vacated by the Americans.

Already, the administration has announced the short-sighted decision that it will continue to withhold some military aid ($255 million) to Pakistan. China has indicated the importance of Pakistan to its interests through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which connects China’s western province of Xinjiang to Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coastline in Balochistan province. The Corridor was launched in April 2015 and is valued at $46 billion in aid and investment (Pakistani officials claim that by April 2017, the package was worth over US $62 billion). In 2017, China invested $837 million, compared to only $42 million by the Americans.

Notably, within days of Trump’s decision to withhold aid from Pakistan, Beijing revealed it is building a naval base at the Pakistani city of Jiwani, located along the Gulf of Oman.

Despite the bluster and threats, there are several reasons why the US is unlikely to cut its aid to Egypt, the sponsor of the resolution.

First, in 2015, Egypt was invited to join the One Belt, One Road Initiative and to become the first African country to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). One reason for this is that al-Sisi recognises that Egypt is in dire need of structural reform. In 2017, Egypt’s misery index, which is the rate of annual inflation plus unemployment, reached 45 per cent.

Second, the US is afraid that without aid, Egypt may face another revolution that could restore the Muslim Brotherhood, or bring in an actor who is not pro-Washington.

Third, in August 2017, the US suspended a $100 million aid package to Egypt because of human rights violations. Within weeks, Russia’s President Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had each visited Egypt to conclude important security and economic agreements.

More on this: China: an old hand at soft power

Finally, in October 2017, it was revealed that Egypt had bought more than 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades worth $23 million from North Korea. This is despite Egypt receiving over a billion dollars annually from the United States. North Korea’s closest ally is China.

Trump and Haley’s bellicosity highlights their misapprehension of international relations. To them, the US can bully its way into making America great again, whereas Xi prefers to use soft power.

The reality, however, is that America’s bullying only weakens it. The US is becoming increasingly friendless – Trump for example was not invited to the December 2017 climate change meeting in Paris, which was attended by 50 world leaders.

Hamid Reza Taraghi, a conservative Iranian politician with close ties to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, points out that while Trump rants, Iran, China and Russia “are gaining ground in the Middle East, and America is losing ground and influence.”

As the 2018 World Economic Forum concludes this week, two images will be presented to the world. There is going to be the Donald Trump speech that is likely to emphasise national sovereignty, American strength (possibly with claims that he is responsible for the positive global economic growth), and a demand for nations to stop ‘abusing’ the United States. This will likely be contrasted with Xi Jinping’s defence of globalisation and the importance of peace to free trade.

Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, and his general belligerent, derogatory tone towards those that rejected his view, will only further diminish America’s status in the world.

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