Trump has turned foreign aid into shabby political theatre

Stalled relief supplies for Venezuela at the Colombian border are a stark illustration of Trump’s crudely transactional approach to aid.

In their grey livery, the US Air Force C-17s shuttling into Camilo Daza airport in Cúcuta, Colombia, look more belligerent than friendly – which is, perhaps, the point.

In the city itself, the planes’ cargo – boxes labelled USAid and intended for distribution by the Venezuelan opposition just across the border – are accumulating in the town’s warehouses.

It is an optic that matters because on the edge of a genuine humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela, the Trump administration appears to be creating the illusion of a secondary crisis.

With its air force flights, accumulation of stalled aid in the stand off with the regime of Nicolás Maduro, who is refusing to allow the aid across the border, it is a piece of highly politicised theatre with its cut-price echoes of the Berlin airlift of 1948-9 when the Soviet Union blocked transport links for supplies to Allied-controlled sectors of the city.

While US aid policy has been politicised since the post-war Marshall Plan, no US president has been so obvious and crude as Trump in their approach to using assistance for global leverage.

If the Trump administration’s method can actually be called doctrine – as opposed to a series of attention-seeking and ego-driven impulses – it has revealed itself in the past two years to be unconcerned with much pretence of generally accepted humanitarian principles, instead often favouring gesture politics even at the expense of wider US foreign policy interests.

If Trump’s approach is jarring it is because historically presidents, both Republican and Democrat, have recognised the importance of US assistance.

Arguing for establishment of USAid in 1961, it was president John F Kennedy who proposed the formula that it should not simply be driven by moral considerations but by recognition that “our [US] security would be endangered and our prosperity imperilled” by continued widespread poverty and instability.

And the high point of US aid giving in the decades after the Marshall Plan – at some 0.6% of GDP – would come not under a Democrat but during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who would echo Kennedy in stating “the ultimate importance to the United States of our security and development assistance programs cannot be exaggerated”.

And while Trump has often threatened more than he has delivered in many other arenas, on the issue of US assistance he has a record of following through on his threats, not least against the Palestinians where he has slowed crucial aid to a trickle to force the Palestinian leadership to come to the negotiating table on his much-vaunted Middle East peace plan.

That is not to say that the Trump approach to foreign assistance has not seen push-back. He was forced to retreat last year from reported plans to bypass Congress and roll back billions of dollars from the US foreign aid budget.

All of this casts a harsh spotlight on the real meaning of the current accumulation of aid on Venezuela’s Colombian border.

The reality is that the US flights into Cúcuta represent more than what Nathanial Myers, in a 2015 paper for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, dubbed as a worrying and short term-ist trend towards “hard aid”. He argued that it threatened to undermine “the traditional developmental mission increasingly recognised as central to future American security”.

Rather, the flights look something more shabby: a dangerous stunt utilising aid for other purposes, alluded to by UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric, who told reporters in New York last week: “Humanitarian action needs to be independent of political, military or any other objectives.”

As a New York Times leader suggested earlier this week: “Trump is only incidentally speaking out in support of the downtrodden. His chief motivation appears to be to rally his far-right base by proclaiming himself a warrior against ‘socialism’ – an evil he identifies not only with the radical policies of Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, but also in the platforms of some Democratic presidential hopefuls.”

As US assistance in the Trump era barrels towards an ever darker place, its tools seem daily more authoritarian than democratic.

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