Former USAID Head Criticizes Trump's Proposed Cuts To State Department
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The proposed cuts to the State Department, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, amount to a 29 percent hit, second only to the EPA. Andrew Natsios headed USAID in the Bush administration. He was also one of the Republicans who signed a letter against Donald Trump last year, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.
ANDREW NATSIOS: How are you today?
SIEGEL: Fine. Would the budget proposal with this big cut for State and USAID qualitatively change the way those agencies work?
NATSIOS: That's an understatement. It essentially moves back to an earlier period even before the Cold War started. Although the Marshall Plan, which was the beginning of our foreign aid program, was enormous and saved Europe from Stalin, there are three great periods of increases. One was under Harry Truman, another under Jack Kennedy. And then George W. Bush actually increased foreign aid more than any other president since Jack Kennedy. So in many respects, these cuts are an attack on Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush because they were among the leading increasers of foreign aid among all presidents.
SIEGEL: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said, though, that the State Department budget these days is historically high because of the conflicts the U.S. has been in. He sort of describes a demobilization of a wartime State Department. Does he have a point?
NATSIOS: I think he's wrong. One, State and AID were never staffed for wartime purposes, and what - the attempt was made to increase the staffing so that it can respond to contingencies. I think the notion that the administration seems to have that there aren't going to be any threats to the United States that require soft power response is nonsense.
SIEGEL: Secretary of State Tillerson, though, today called this budget - and I'm quoting now - "an acknowledgment that development needs are a global challenge to be met not just by contributions from the United States but through greater partnership with and contributions from our allies and others." Is he right that other countries should be contributing more to development aid?
NATSIOS: I don't know where he's getting this from. With all due respect to Mr. Tillerson, I think he needs to examine the data. We rank, before these cuts, 22nd out of all of the wealthy countries. So the notion that other countries should do more when they're doing far more than we are now proportionate to the size of their economies or the size of their budgets doesn't make any sense.
SIEGEL: The proposed cuts not just in - at USAID but on climate change prevention and funding for U.N. peacekeeping and development banks like the World Bank - these are all elements of what you've called soft power. The OMB director says the budget beefs us hard power - the military, homeland security. And he says that's what people voted for. Is he right?
NATSIOS: No, he's not right because President Trump did not speak about this issue during the campaign. If you read the Republican platform, it endorsed a robust foreign aid program. Number two, his campaign issued a statement supporting a robust foreign aid program. So what he said in the campaign is different than what is in the budget.
SIEGEL: Can you tell a skeptical listener right now how his or her interests are served by, say, the U.S. giving foreign aid?
NATSIOS: Yes, I think some liberal internationalists tend to talk about ending poverty. Realists or conservative internationalists tend to look at what the threats are to the United States - for example, pandemics. We had a serious pandemic in West Africa of Ebola. We now have Zika in Latin America. These diseases cannot be stopped at the border by any wall or any other means. We need to deal with them at the source, not once they reach the United States.
Number two, we have a mass migration crisis of people around the world leaving their countries. The question is, why are they leaving? The way you deal with that is to build sustainable institutions in those countries that can deal with the problems so that people don't leave their countries.
Number three, we have radical Islamist groups that are threatening to destabilize our friends and allies in Africa and the Middle East. We need to deal with them. Now, part of that is a military solution, but it also is improving the school systems, improving public services, improving the health systems in these countries so that there isn't an appeal from these radical groups. Governance improvement is not done through DOD. It's not done through hard power. It's done through soft power.
SIEGEL: That Andrew Natsios, formerly a diplomat with the Bush administration. He was head of USAID, now a professor at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M. He spoke to us via Skype. Thanks a lot for talking with us today.
NATSIOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.