WASHINGTON — America’s foreign policy including its bedrock financial support for international organizations has become an emerging battleground in the newly divided U.S. Congress.
After eight years in the minority, Democrats vowed to redirect, block or investigate Republican U.S. President Donald Trump’s domestic and foreign programs and priorities when they take over the U.S. House of Representatives in January.
Though it has never allowed international organizations to steer its foreign policy, the United States has traditionally been a major participant and financial supporter in the rules-based international order that has been the foundation of the United States’ prosperity since World War II.
“At this point we really don’t know where the administration is going in regard to Africa, and we know it’s not just Africa. We know it’s many parts of the world,” Rep. Karen Bass, Democrat of California, told a forum at George Washington University’s Institute for African Studies this month.
Bass, a stalwart of U.S. policy in Africa and a fierce critic of Trump administration policies, said she intended to serve as the next chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Human Rights, and International Organizations.
“And I encourage folks to not get distracted by the confusion, the tweets, the bizarre statements — the one minute we’re going one direction, and another minute we’re going another direction — but to look to the House and the Senate,” she said of Trump, referring to his unprecedented reliance on the social media platform Twitter as the leading vehicle for his presidential communications.
Republicans held onto a Senate majority, 51-47, with two races still undecided. In the House, where Democrats had a 232-200 margin over Republicans, Bass and other incoming Democratic leaders were at odds with Trump’s isolationist “America First” agenda. His nationalist policies have brought on a widespread U.S. retreat from international organizations and treaties created since World War II, and the imposition of tariffs on China, the European Union and other trading partners.
This is “the first time that there will be a check on this President and his administration,” Bass said in an op-ed article in BlackPressUSA.com, published three days after midterm election voters shifted the House’s balance of power away from Trump’s Republican base of virulent, ethnic nationalism.
Trump snubbed America’s closest allies in the Group of Seven and NATO and reversed the policies of former U.S. President Barack Obama on broad fronts. Trump has announced plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change; Trans-Pacific Partnership; U.N. cultural and educational agency UNESCO; Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, known as the Iran nuclear deal; U.N. Human Rights Council; and the U.S.-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The United States has provided critical financial support to international organizations, without which some could hardly function. It has regularly paid for about 22 percent of the United Nations’ budget and, since 2001, about 32 percent of the budget of the world’s biggest disease-fighting financing mechanism, the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
He also threatened to pull the United States out of the 164-nation World Trade Organization, which is not part of the United Nations system. It was established in 1995 to underpin the international system of trade rules and to provide a forum where governments can try to sort out trade problems.
“If they don’t shape up, I would withdraw from the WTO,” Trump was quoted as saying in an August interview with Bloomberg News, going a step further than his previous comments that America has been treated “very badly” by an institution that he said must change its ways.
Trump was most likely to focus his attention on those areas where his executive powers gave him more leeway to set the agenda, such as trade policy, and he was likely to keep pushing hard on China to win concessions that lower the U.S. trade deficit and protect American intellectual property rights, said James Knightley, chief international economist for Dutch multinational bank ING Group.
“This in itself may well get backing from Democrats, but they are likely to be more resistant to starting a trade war with traditional allies such as the European Union or pulling out of the World Trade Organization,” he wrote in a bank analysis after the midterm elections. “Instead, we may get more discussion about working together with Europe in order to stand a better chance of getting movement from China on trade. ”
Rep. @GerryConnolly in this week's #DemAddress: "Rather than dismantle and sabotage Obamacare, House Democrats want to work to make it better by creating more competition, bringing down prescription drug costs, and expanding access to health care." pic.twitter.com/uRhByoojMS
— House Democrats (@HouseDemocrats) November 17, 2018
Challenges to foreign aid
Almost two-thirds of the Democratic members of Congress in the House and Senate wrote to Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asking them to reverse the decision to end financing for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA. They said the pressure tactic on Palestinian leaders would unfairly compound the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The decision to withhold around US$300 million was the biggest reduction in funding that the U.N. agency has ever faced since its creation in 1949. That has threatened the existence of many of its programs, including cash-for-work activities and food assistance for 1 million people. There also were 280,000 boys and girls in Gaza attending the 711 schools that UNRWA operates.
Armed with subpoena power, the new Democratic majority had a lengthy list of investigative targets ranging from Trump’s tangle of business dealings to his firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
Democrats disputed Trump’s rejection of the intelligence community’s findings that Russian hackers interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and they took issue with his dismissal of the CIA’s conclusion that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince ordered the assassination of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as first reported in The Washington Post.
“Last week, Americans made clear they want a constitutional check on the rampant abuses of the Trump administration. The scandals, lack of transparency and self-dealing must stop,” U.S. Representative Gerry Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, said about the outcome of midterm elections in the House Democrats’ weekly address. “Our investigations will go wherever the facts lead us, and we will act decisively when we find violations of public trust.”
Trump put forward a plan for the complete elimination of a US$337 million account that has supported international organizations that do not get U.S. funding from regular U.N. assessments. Those included U.N. agencies on climate change, development, humanitarian aid and women’s issues.
Bass told an October 2017 hearing by her subcommittee that going along with Trump’s proposals to axe support for global peacekeeping and development, as part of deep cuts to the U.S. State Department and USAID budgets, would mean an abdication of American leadership in the world.
“Providing technology and our scientific expertise so that we can build the capacity, rather than have this charity approach to me is U.S. leadership,” she said. “We complain about the role of the Chinese. Well, you know, this budget has us stepping back in my opinion.”
House Democrats were preparing to challenge an array of foreign aid, the State Department budget and U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere through hearings and investigations. That extended to the war to drive the Islamic State militant group out of Iraq and Syria, U.S.-Russian relations, denuclearization efforts in Iran and the Korean Peninsula. Bass said she planned to organize visits by congressional delegations to review major military issues, including foreign troops using U.S. -supplied weapons to kill civilians “in several places around the world.”
“We can put all of our resources in the military or we can help address some of the root causes for the conflicts to begin with,” said Bass. “And it seems like this budget is very short sighted and why I said it is full of contradictions. Now it is a perfect example of why I am thankful we have three equal branches of government so that we can push back.”
U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, Democrat of New York, said he intended to make oversight “a central element” of the House Foreign Affairs Committee if he took over as chairperson in January. Much of Trump’s “America First” approach has been reflected in the harsh anti-international views of his national security adviser, John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Trump told the U.N. General Assembly in September that “America is governed by Americans,” and that his administration rejected “the ideology of globalism” and welcomed “the doctrine of patriotism.”
The Trump administration was preparing its foreign assistance review of development spending, which would set up more fighting over the White House’s budget proposals. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee postponed an October hearing on multilateral economic institutions and U.S. foreign policy. One member, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, introduced bipartisan legislation to prohibit the United States from expending funds for war with Iran without express approval from Congress or in response to imminent attack, as required by the Constitution.
U.S. Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky, was in line to become chairperson of the House Budget Committee, which is responsible for considering the entirety of Trump’s budget plan and releasing its own blueprint. That would likely translate into greater congressional support for international organizations like the United Nations, World Bank and Global Fund, despite the Trump administration’s enmity and openly contemptuous approach towards many of them.