The torment of waking up to a Trump presidency has been described by some American’s as a glitch in the matrix; of being transported to a parallel universe in which a loutish red-haired charlatan, a bully accused of being a serial abuser of women – while bragging that as a famous man he can get away with anything – becomes the president of the United States.
Wielding power in a manner devoid of compassion and decency is innate to narcissist Trump. Power to the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump is a tool to bully, humiliate and coerce others into doing things which they would never do.
It comes as no surprise then to see President Trump take the unprecedented step of threatening to cut US funding to countries that oppose his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in a UN vote today. The threat is Weinsteinian in its depravity. One imagines Trump saying to himself: If you want me to use my power and wealth to help you, then you need to humiliate yourself by performing demeaning political favours, which no self-respecting country would ever debase themselves to doing.
In the characteristically simpleton parallel universe that Trump inhabits, the logic is straightforward: “They take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars, and then they vote against us. Well, we’re watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”
The reality of course is very different. US aid is not a gift bestowed by the president to demonstrate American benevolence to impoverished nations. The main purpose of aid is the advancement of national self-interest. Aid is an instrument of power, deployed by powerful states to carry influence amongst weaker states.
According to a former State Department official and aid expert Carol Lancaster modern US aid originated in Cold War geopolitics. “The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe,” the Council on Foreign Relations points out, “was designed to blunt the influence of rising Communist political forces on the continent. National security concerns have continued to drive US assistance policy, aiming to provide stability in conflicted regions, bolster allies, promote democracy, or contribute to counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts abroad.”
Who are the recipients of the $49 billion (1.3 per cent of the federal budget) distributed by the US: with $3.1 billion Israel is far and away the biggest recipient of US aid followed by Egypt which receives $1.5 billion. In fact a number of Arab and Muslim majority countries receive significant amounts of aid from the US to fund a complex stew of programmes that include promoting liberal values to security and counterterrorism.
Reflecting the close relation between US aid and US power is the significant increase to the budget of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. During the 1990s aid levels were cut to barely half of what they are today, falling to less than $20 billion in 1997, or 0.8 per cent of the overall budget. The terrorist attack on the US, however, prompted the Bush administration to embark on a “crusade” armed with the world’s largest military arsenal and an aid budget that that would be the envy of any superpower in world history determined to win political favour using financial bribes.
The story of aid is not as straightforward as Trump would like it to be. Foreign aid in actual fact provides massive financial gains for donor countries. What poor countries received through aid is minuscule compared to the vast sums that are extracted by affluent Western capitals. The sustained and significant outflows from the developing countries since the eighties have topped $16.3 trillion. To put it another way, the outflow of wealth from developing nations over the intervening period equals the GDP of the US.
Foreign aid is part of a complex global structure in which donors and recipients clearly recognise the mutual benefit of having a means to exchange favours under the guise of the redistribution of wealth. This is one of the main reasons why western governments are reluctant to reduce the aid budget despite pressure from large sections of society. As with much of what Trump has done since moving into the White House, this unprecedented move, one expects, will work against him.
Despite what Trump may think, aid has already bought the US untold political favours and no self-respecting government, however poor, will allow themselves to be bullied into thinking they are a basket case in need of US generosity. If Trump’s bulling tactic does anything of significance, it should awaken a sense of national pride amongst recipients of US aid.
“No honourable state would bow to such pressure,” said the Foreign Minister of Turkey – a co-sponsor of the UN vote – Mevlut Cavusoglu. “The world has changed. The belief that ‘I am strong therefore I am right’ has changed. The world today is revolting against injustices.”
Others have denounced the threat saying “states resort to such blatant bullying only when they know they do not have a moral or legal argument to convince others.” Even a senior western diplomat, described it as “poor tactics” but not one which is “going to win any votes in the General Assembly or the Security Council”. A senior European diplomat agreed Haley was unlikely to sway many UN states.
US Congress has also called Trump on his bluff, with condemnations from key Democratic lawmakers who have poured water over the idea that Congress would allow him to carry out such an unprecedented threat. No pragmatic US politician would wish to play the aid card, as Trump has done, over an issue like Jerusalem. Not least because the draft resolution reaffirms numerous Security Council resolutions on Jerusalem, dating back to 1967, including requirements that the city’s final status must be decided in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Not to mention of course that the resolution had been US policy over five decades.
Today’s vote will be a defining moment for the international community, and more so for the Arab Gulf states allied to the Trump administration. It is not just a vote over the fate of Jerusalem and the millions of Palestinians suffering under the brutal Israeli occupation. The 193 members of the General Assembly are being asked to choose what kind of politics they want on the playground of the international stage. Are they going to reward a bully who challenges basic decency and forever be held hostage to their cowardice or stand up to the bully as everyone should.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.