During the 2020 presidential race, then campaign aide, now Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised that a Biden administration would “bring aid back to the center of our foreign policy—the emphasis would be on diplomacy, on democracy, and on development.”
We now have a first sense of how the Biden administration plans to fulfill this pledge. On April 9, the White House released its top-line request for $1.52 trillion in Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22) federal discretionary spending across departments and agencies throughout the government, including the State Department and USAID, which administer most U.S. foreign aid programs. Called the “skinny budget” in Washington parlance, the relatively concise document previews for Congress in broad strokes the key elements of the President’s full, detailed budget proposal, which the White House expects to send to Congress later this spring.
This year’s skinny budget heavily focuses on domestic spending, Biden’s clear priority, but here are three foreign aid-related takeaways.
First, the administration’s $63.5 billion proposal for the State Department and international affairs budget is a whopping $19 billion more than what Trump’s final budget proposal asked for—and $5 billion more than President Obama’s largest request, for FY11. Notably, Biden’s FY22 proposal is also $8 billion more than what Congress actually appropriated for FY21. It is also noteworthy, however, that an administration that is emphasizing diplomacy and development is not seeking an even larger increase for foreign aid, nor proposing cuts in defense spending. Indeed, according to the skinny budget Biden is requesting $715 billion for defense spending, eleven times more than the proposed amount for State.
Second, in line with Biden’s rhetorical emphasis on democracy promotion, his administration wants “a significant increase in resources to advance human rights and democratic values,” though the skinny budget does not specify exactly how much. As a reference point, for FY21 Congress appropriated $2.4 billion in foreign aid for democracy and human rights programs around the world. This includes global resources for the National Endowment for Democracy ($300 million), for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor ($190.5 million), and for USAID’s Bureau of Development, Democracy, and Innovation ($100.3 million), as well as for Middle East-specific programs managed by the State Department such as Iran human rights ($55 million) and the Middle East Partnership Initiative ($50 million). (Democracy and human rights assistance is also funded out of bilateral aid programs.) In the full budget request, the accounts, programs, and region(s) toward which the administration wants to put the proposed additional funds will be a strong indication of its global democracy and human rights priorities.
Third, for the Middle East—the region that for decades has received such a large share of U.S. foreign aid ($7.8 billion was appropriated for FY19, the most recent figure available)—the skinny budget says little about the administration’s plans. The document mentions only an intention to restore aid to the Palestinians after Trump’s cuts and to “fully [fund] U.S. commitments to key allies in the Middle East, including Israel and Jordan.” It is not surprising that the skinny budget singles out these two countries, as each currently has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Washington that commits the United States to providing (subject to congressional concurrence) a certain level of bilateral aid annually over several years.
What we don’t yet know is what the Biden administration has in mind for Middle East foreign assistance beyond Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians. POMED will be looking to see how the full budget request addresses several key questions. First, will the Biden administration propose any reductions or other changes to MENA aid as part of President Biden’s preference for de-emphasizing the Middle East in favor of Asia? Second, given its stated commitment to democracy promotion and development, will the administration look to reverse the unfortunate over-securitization of U.S. aid in this region by bolstering aid for democracy and economic development? (In FY19, for instance, an astounding 73 percent of aid to the region was for security assistance, while only 4 percent was for democracy assistance.) Third, and relatedly, will the administration seek cuts to Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for the region, in particular to Egypt’s legacy FMF program of $1.3 billion, provided annually since 1987? During the campaign, after all, Biden tweeted, “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’” referring to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The foreign assistance budget is a reflection of, and in part also drives, policy and the forthcoming detailed President’s Budget will provide a clearer picture of what Biden’s Middle East policy will actually be. Later this spring, POMED will publish its 14th annual report on U.S. foreign assistance to the Middle East, which will examine these issues in depth. (Here is last year’s report.) Stay tuned!
Seth Binder is the Advocacy Officer at POMED. Find him on Twitter @seth_binder. Amy Hawthorne is POMED’s Deputy Director for Research. She is on Twitter @awhawth. The authors thank POMED intern Insiya Raja for providing research assistance.
Photo Credit: Adam Schultz / White House on Flickr