It was a rare lesson in the art of diplomacy: the visit of Angela Merkel to the White House on 17 March was somehow ironic. Simply put, the German Chancellor lectured the US President in a language he might not decode. In clear text, she warned him of the perils of political and economic isolationism. In a way, she contrasted Trump's regressive Weltanschauung with the visionary path of the Roosevelt Administration, which allowed for the defeat of fascism, and the Truman Administration's Marshall Plan to reconstruct Western Europe after WWII, eventually paving the way to the European Union.
Merkel reminded Trump that there were no magical solutions to international trade or security, and whilst defense spending was important, so was diplomacy and economic assistance to the world's poorest. She also reminded him of the legal obligations of all states to assist refugees fleeing war. This, from the leader of a country that increased its defense budget by 8 percent last year, but also spent 22 billion dollars on integrating the one million refugees it welcomed, despite the patent political risks to Merkel.
Facing a growing list of domestic setbacks at home, an FBI investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and links between the Trump campaign and Moscow, dissent within his own party over healthcare legislation, and falling approval ratings, President Trump's drastic budget outline issued last week is a harbinger of the direction he wants to take: a 10 percent ($54 billion) increase in military appropriations and an extraordinary 29 percent ($10.9 billion) cut in the State Department’s budget which includes UN funding, development and humanitarian assistance programs. While the ever-silent Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to rationalize the cuts, the Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, is on record denouncing foreign aid cuts to benefit military spending. As Commander of US Central Command, he had warned that 'if you don't fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition'. General Mattis knows the limitations of exorbitant military hardware and the value of soft power 'aid' dollars that can be stretched. But aid is a misnomer; in reality, it is an investment.
As a businessman, President Trump should find it easy to analyze balance sheets and returns on investment: the annual cost of the whole UN system (including its peacekeeping and development programs) is approximately $50 billion -- contrast this with an estimated $4 to $6 trillion spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, costing US taxpayers over $4 million per hour.
The obvious first casualty of the State Department’s budget cuts would be the multilateral system: the United Nations and its specialized agencies. But the real human victims will be the starving, the poor and the downtrodden who need the UN to simply survive.
So far, no-one has asked Trump about the unfolding famine affecting over 20 million people in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and Nigeria. To avert 'a catastrophe', the UN's top humanitarian official told the Security Council on 11 March, that $4.4 billion would be needed by July. His boss, Secretary-General Guterres, sounded the alarm bell four days earlier when he visited Somalia, but few took notice. In the US, the media remains fascinated by the tweets of an unorthodox President, devoting no air-time to what is becoming, according to the UN, the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945. Around the world, many capitals are more consumed by the perplexing instability of the White House than critical instabilities elsewhere.
So when Trump wants to cut the US' contribution to the UN, carelessly using the purse lever to compel the international system to march his way, when he threatens to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and vows to bring it down --slashing the budget of his Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent-- he risks a number of dangerous setbacks.
First, climate change is not just a scientific debate. It is a security issue.
After studying its strategic security implications for years, the Pentagon found in a 2014 study that climate change was an 'immediate' risk; then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called it a 'threat multiplier' that could increase the risk of conflict. And Secretary Mattis believes that it is one of the key security threats the US is expected to confront over the next 25 years.
Take Lake Chad which shrank by 95 percent from 1963 to 1998, and which provides water to 68 million people in Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria. The humanitarian consequences have been devastating: about 9 million people need assistance and 2.7 million people, the majority from Nigeria, are displaced; thousands have been killed by conflict. The correlation between the rise of Boko Haram, which has morphed into an affiliate of ISIS in the region, and Lake Chad may not be glaring, but it is there. Similarly, the conflict in Darfur, now in its 14th year, started as a local conflict over scarce water resources. And even the war in Syria had, at its onset, economic grievances following the worst consecutive drought in 900 years according to a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, which concludes that the entire Mediterranean basin is at risk.
Second, the US' retreat from the international arena provides an opportunity to emerging powers, China first and foremost, to meet financial shortfalls -- and supplant the US. Evidently, at the UN and the World Bank, 'money talks'. Trump's threats may be a golden opportunity for the UN General Assembly to overhaul its scale of assessments, the formula that sets each member state's budgetary contribution. And if Washington's share of the UN's regular and peacekeeping budgets decreases, so will its voice.
What Trump and Republicans in Congress should realize is that diplomacy is not futile, aid is not charity, and divestments don't bring higher yields (or make America safer). The President may think drought is just a remote, endemic nightmare in Africa, but he should remember the 19th century California Water Wars. His short-sightedness will be a costly error of judgement. If he wants to save up, he can do so by sparing US taxpayers the $2.6 billion earmarked in the proposed budget for his wall (expected to cost $21.6 billion, according to the US Department of Homeland Security). Merkel could have whispered to him that 'walls don't work'; but she probably knows that this, too, is a lesson he would rather forget.