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Putting America first will cost some much more than others

Inward looking: President Donald Trump has not talked about building bridges with other countries (Photograph by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Just minutes after Donald Trump took over as President, WhiteHouse.gov was updated with his new priorities. Among them? An “America first” foreign policy.

Trump has laid out a staunchly nationalist vision for America, a zero-sum world where our needs are the only ones that matter. In his inaugural address yesterday, there was little talk of international co-operation or building bridges.

Instead, Trump offered this vaguely dystopian readout: “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidised the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”

No more.

“From this moment on,” Trump said, “it’s going to be America First.” (A slogan popularised, for what it’s worth, by Nazi sympathisers.)

In practice, that means a protectionist foreign policy aimed at eradicating “radical Islamic terror” and negotiating better trade deals. Missing will be any sense of America as a champion of human rights and democracy, a warrior against climate change or a leader in peacemaking and poverty eradication. As Politico reported a couple of days ago, Trump wants to rejig the State Department in this image, prioritising counterterrorism and intelligence gathering — and using the term “radical Islam” in public as often as possible — over all else.

That would involve a fundamental rethinking of the department’s mission, one that would come with a fairly radical reallotment of funds.

Barack Obama proposed a $50.1 billion budget for the State Department and USAID in 2017. Some of that money is spent on security assistance but significantly more goes to economic and development aid. As The Washington Post reported a couple of months ago, that money “is intended to ensure American strategic interests abroad and bolster international institutions that respond to humanitarian crises, climate change, infectious diseases and a plethora of other development concerns”.

Trump will probably cut $18.1 billion in economic and development assistance dramatically if he does not eliminate it entirely.

Of course, not all countries will be affected equally. Much of that spending is focused on a handful of African countries, directed towards health initiatives such as treating HIV and Aids. Afghanistan, too, is a significant recipient. After 15 years of a war that has entangled the United States, that country is using American funds to “rebuild its tattered public infrastructure”.

It is less clear whether the Trump administration will rethink the military aid that it sends abroad. Right now, about three-quarters of all direct military aid goes to Israel and Egypt. As The Washington Post explains: “Israel is the largest recipient of US aid since the Second World War — the country was forged into existence only in 1948. And Egypt procured such robust funding only by agreeing to an American-brokered peace deal with Israel in the 1978 Camp David Accords.”

US military aid may not face such dramatic cutbacks. After all, regulations dictate that recipient countries spend the money on American defence contracts — except Israel, which can spend up to 26 per cent of the aid it receives on products of its own defence industry.

Amanda Erickson writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Previously, she worked as an editor for Outlook and PostEverything