26th June 2021
For a brief moment in April 2021, it seemed that the Biden administration would lose its reputation of goodwill, which it had garnered since stepping into office. The administration came under criticism for its refusal to send raw materials and aid to India at a time when the country was witnessing a deadly surge in coronavirus cases. A tumultuous week kindled the indelible image of twists and turns in the 60’s attributed to the PL-480 plan. However, apprehensions about the Biden Presidency did not last very long when the administration did a one-eighty on vaccine exports. As the pandemic persists, great powers have been recommitting to soft power strategies through vaccine diplomacy and economic aid to countries that are grappling with Covid-19. In this context, agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have already begun assuming increasing significance. In an era of strategic competition, aid and assistance to countries in dire straits have been an important model in soft power strategies to further foreign policy objectives.
USAID under Trump
America’s soft power push has waned in the past few years with China making great strides to strengthen its soft power capabilities. The four years under President Trump have seen reframed directions and budget cuts in U.S. foreign assistance agencies. However, debilitating cuts in USAID is not a new phenomenon. In fact, there have been times when the role of USAID in foreign policy calculations have come under question under various presidencies, like when the Bill Clinton administration signed off on budget cuts. The U.S.’s stance on foreign assistance during the Trump years had somewhat altered the ‘good samaritan’ tag the country has been developing and projecting over the years. The plan under the Trump administration sought to slash U.S. foreign aid budget by 37 percent, and upheld a transactional and concentrated approach to providing aid to other countries. For instance, the Countering Malign Kremlin Influence focused on countering efforts to undermine democratic institutions within the region saw a significant increase in USAID spending in the target areas of Russia’s periphery such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Understandably, there were apprehensions surrounding the continuity of developmental cooperation under Trump but it did not substantially affect USAID programs with India. In fact, Development cooperation with India saw continuity in 2019, amidst the Trump Presidency rolling back and striking down many policies. The triangular development cooperation in Asia and Africa saw renewal, officially extending the partnership until 2021. Moreover, in June 2020 when India was experiencing its first wave of the coronavirus, the Trump administration sent 200 ventilators under a USAID program.
Development cooperation has been an important pillar of the India-U.S. bilateral relationship. In 2014, India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the public diplomacy arm of USAID agreed to jointly collaborate with each other. This was followed by a 2016 Joint Statement, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States, which further affirmed interests in developmental cooperation between the two countries. One of the initiatives that have seen much success is the Feed the Future-India Triangular Training Program-that focuses on training African agriculturalists in India while receiving funding and assistance from USAID. For the United States, development programmes with New Delhi exhibits that the relationship is multi-faceted. Spanning from military technology to woman empowerment programmes, the partnership is underpinned with a prism of agencies pooling in resources, attempting to make the bilateral relationship reach its zenith. While the Trump Presidency engaged in streamlining foreign aid and assistance, President Biden’s recommitment to the State Department and the USAID through the budget reflects the importance of developmental and humanitarian assistance in the current administration.
The Future of Foreign Assistance under Biden
President Joe Biden’s immediate priorities has included responding to the pandemic and has acknowledged that aid and assistance is a crucial foreign policy tool. U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken expressed that aid will take centre stage in U.S. foreign policy. International development assistance will be utilised to restore moral leadership and eventually shift away from the narrative that was previously linked with the Trump Presidency. More importantly, the appointment of Samantha Power (former Obama official) as administrator of USAID reflects President Joe Biden’s intentions to focus on soft power as an important facet in foreign policy calculations. Power played a key role in Obama’s foreign policy team, and will most likely have sway on how USAID plans will be implemented and will uphold the flag of moral leadership owing to her experience as a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and her work on issues including human rights and promotion of democracy. Furthermore, this is the first administration to grant the U.S. development leader a seat on the National Security Council. This is critical recognition of the essential role that the agency is expected to carry out. The Biden-Harris administration allocating $27.7 billion illustrates just how much of a key role developmental assistance will play in advancing America’s foreign and domestic policy objectives. Joe Biden’s climate ambitions are articulated in the USAID Bilateral Climate Change Programming where $600 billion has been appropriated to expand the reach of USAID’s programs to combat the climate crises. Moreover, in light of the ongoing pandemic, health aid has been bolstered in USAID and the health sector will be an important tributary in foreign assistance under the current administration.
While the pandemic has plunged the world into a global health and economic crisis, there have also been moments of respite where avenues for cooperation and collaboration, in the India-U.S. relationship have emerged. Through U.S. foreign assistance and collaboration with countries like India, sectors such as public health have already seen increased cooperation between public and private players on both sides. Moreover, both during and outside times of crisis, under the Biden Presidency, development assistance will be an important tool for diplomatic outreach. While it is not certain that USAID in particular may continue to hold the same vigour in the following presidencies, foreign assistance will be a perennial public diplomacy tool as U.S. and China stand on the precipice of the Thucydides’ trap; and in the bargain cooperation between U.S. foreign assistance agencies and other countries may gather steam. Collaboration between the USAID and the Indian government over the past decades have forged public-private partnerships unlocking infinite potential of developmental assistance. Engaging India through people-to-people ties and public diplomacy relations will continue as long as countries compete for dominance in international politics and work towards strengthening influence the benign way.
*The author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are those of the author