home in Nepal destroyed by earthquake
A home in Rasuwa, Nepal destroyed by a major earthquake in 2015. Credit: Peregrine Frissell

On April 25, 2015 – four minutes before noon — the earth began to shake in Nepal, the landlocked country known for housing the world’s tallest mountains. In just fifty seconds, homes and historic temples were reduced to rubble that clogged city streets and destroyed mountain roads, rendering them impassable for many seeking medical attention. The earthquake, which killed nearly 9,000 people, was by far the bloodiest day in the nation’s recent history.

Within hours, a C-17 U.S. Air Force plane was en route to Kathmandu, initiating an immediate response by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Foreign Disaster Assistance Program. In the chaotic days following the quake, 136 USAID professionals were sent to Nepal amid a broader injection of $10 million in disaster relief from the U.S. government.

During the campaign and now as president, Donald Trump has championed a breed of “America First” isolationism. While he’s derided foreign aid to countries embroiled in political conflicts in the Middle East, Trump has made few comments about contributions towards places like Nepal mired in apolitical disasters.

When he announced his presidential campaign in June 2015, Trump said the U.S. should “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us,” and instead “invest in our infrastructure.” While he wishes to end “nation-building,” — the Bush-era tactic of harnessing American power to forge a developing country’s national identity and government — that is decidedly different than financing disaster relief and mitigation aid.

President Trump’s recently released budget further reinforces his intention to scale back funding for foreign diplomacy, recklessly calling for a draconian 28 percent cut, or about $10 billion, to the State Department and USAID.

“This is a ‘hard power’ budget. It is not a ‘soft power’ budget,” Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters.

While the budget approved by Congress is unlikely to be as severe as Trump’s proposal, cuts anywhere near this large would kneecap future attempts to aid countries crippled by large-scale natural disasters. Despite political rhetoric about the necessity of American leadership on the global stage, these massive cuts are meant to abdicate America of any personal responsibility to help countries struggling to help themselves.

USAID leadership should make the call about when to send aid to other nations, but Trump has previously shown a tendency to publicly overrule government bureaucrats to micromanage minor budget decisions, such as decrying the price of the new Air Force One, tweeting that “costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!” Trump’s volatility casts doubt on whether the U.S. will always be able to provide help in a timely fashion.

In countries like Nepal, that timeliness is measured in lives. The budget cuts to USAID proposed by the Trump administration would have major ramifications for the next natural disaster abroad, since immediate aid can mean the difference between life and death in the aftermath of a disaster, and aid forms the bedrock of the long-term response in the months and years following a catastrophe.

While the number of casualties of the earthquake in Nepal was substantial, lives were saved because USAID was proactive as well as reactive. The agency has been present in Nepal for years, training doctors in effective first-responder techniques, instructing architects on the materials and construction methods that help prevent complete building collapse, and teaching locals how to conduct their own seismic risk assessments. The result obviously was not perfect, but it helped moderate the effects of the quake, and a reduction in such support programs could prove expensive in the long run.

Within a year of the earthquake rocking Nepal, USAID spent about $130 million in the country, or about 0.4 percent of its annual allotment of $27 billion; it amounted to a negligible 0.004 percent of the entire U.S. budget for 2015.

Putting a price on foreign lives has always opened a Pandora’s box for the United States government. In his speech on foreign policy in April, Trump said he considered the U.S. a “humanitarian nation,” but oriented his comment toward protecting Christians in war-torn nations, making no mention of foreign aid. “The world is most peaceful and most prosperous when America is strongest,” Trump added. “America will continue and continue forever to play the role of peacemaker. We will always help save lives and indeed humanity itself, but to play the role, we must make America strong again.”

The half-vacant, aimless State Department under Trump’s watch has been well-chronicled. The president appears to have strangulated the influence of many of the department’s bureaucrats that know how things run. While these moves are reckless, Trump has gone even further with USAID — he has yet to even appoint anyone to head the agency under his watch.

Trump is keen on displaying America’s strength and power for the world, but he ignores that an integral component of American hegemony is achieved through soft power, a sentiment that has even been expressed by his own defense secretary, James Mattis.

Trump’s commitment to an “America First” ideology underscores that the president is prioritizing domestic issues at the expense of American foreign policy. Missteps on the foreign aid front, however, are easy fodder for journalists and activists the world over. If Trump does not ensure that America is responsive the next time a natural disaster strikes overseas, history will not be kind to him.

For far too long, President Trump has been falling back on the vague demand of asking the world to pay their “fair share.” In of itself, that isn’t necessarily controversial. Unfortunately, now we know what Trump thinks that fair share for America actually is.

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Follow Peregrine on Twitter @PeregrineFriss. Peregrine Frissell is an intern at the Washington Monthly. He has previously worked for papers in Connecticut, Montana and Kathmandu, Nepal and is a graduate of the School of Journalism at the University of Montana.