Where they stand: The White House contenders on US foreign aid

Where do the leading possible contenders for the White House stand on U.S. foreign aid?

And they’re off.

Last Monday, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas became the first major candidate to officially announce his bid for the White House in 2016. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, as well as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination — are expected to follow suit next month.

As the race to succeed U.S. President Barack Obama heats up, Devex takes a closer look at where the leading possible presidential candidates stand on the direction of U.S. foreign aid. Strikingly, we found that the real differences aren’t between the candidates of the two major parties, but within the crowded Republican presidential field.

Three formidable contenders in the opinion polls — Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Republican neurosurgeon Ben Carson — have yet to spell out a clear position on U.S. foreign aid.


Hillary Clinton

Throughout her over two decades in public life, Hillary Clinton has been an impassioned advocate for U.S. aid and development engagement — especially on behalf of women and girls.  Most recently, from her perch at the Clinton Foundation, the former secretary of state has been at the helm of the foundation’s “No Ceilings” initiative to evaluate progress on gender equality worldwide.

“You all know that the polls continuously show that most people in our country think we spend 20-25 percent on foreign aid and I would have loved that to have been the case,” Clinton said last year.

Clinton’s “smart power” approach, manifested in the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, is widely credited with elevating U.S. diplomacy and development priorities in the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda. Her efforts to rebuild the U.S. Agency for International Development’s standing as the premier development agency, however, have garnered far more mixed reviews.

Jeb Bush

A two-term former governor of Florida more known for his domestic policy chops, Jeb Bush made clear in a speech last month that a third Bush administration would also consider foreign aid as a key instrument of U.S. foreign policy.

“American leadership projected consistently and grounded in principle has been a benefit to the world. In the post-World War II era, the United States has helped hundreds of millions of people out of poverty,” Bush said.

Bush has also tapped prominent foreign aid advocates from the Bush 43 administration, including former World Bank President Robert Zoellick, as advisers for his presidential campaign. In a rare moment of bipartisanship in the campaign, Bush has given his backing to the Obama administration’s recently announced $1 billion foreign aid boost to Central America.

Marco Rubio

A freshman senator from Florida, Marco Rubio has carved out a reputation as a stalwart advocate for foreign aid — more so than anyone else in the top tier of the Republican presidential field. Now four years into his senate term, in the past, Rubio has singled out the Millennium Challenge Corp. for praise.

“So it's not just a blank check that we send around the world, basically, where we give countries money in exchange for their friendship,” Rubio said of MCC’s performance-based aid delivery model in 2011.

In the recently concluded 113th Congress, Rubio co-sponsored a bipartisan Senate bill that would have codified Obama administration policies on aid transparency and accountability into law. A first generation Cuban-American, the hawkish Rubio has emerged as the leading Republican critic of Obama’s re-engagement strategy with Havana.

Joe Biden

Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before he was elected vice president in 2008, Joe Biden has thrown his weight behind most every major U.S. foreign aid effort during his four decades in Washington — from economic stabilization in post-Soviet Russia to the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

“At just over 1 percent of our federal budget, American investment in diplomacy and development is one of the best bargains the American taxpayer gets,” Biden said in 2013.

Most recently, Biden has been seen as the chief architect of the Obama administration’s just announced $1 billion foreign aid boost to Central America. Late in 2013, the U.S. Global Leadership Council honored Biden for his long-standing commitment to U.S. global engagement.

Chris Christie

While Chris Christie has had little overseas experience, the New Jersey governor has used the bully pulpit of his office to make the case for a forward-leaning U.S. foreign policy. In a 2011 speech, he hinted that U.S. foreign aid engagement in a Christie administration would also lean forward.

“Without the authority that comes from that exceptionalism — earned American exceptionalism — we cannot do good for other countries, we cannot continue to be a beacon of hope for the world to aspire to for their future generations,” Christie said.

In mid-2013, Christie openly challenged “this strain of libertarianism that's going through parties right now” — a statement that was widely interpreted as a veiled swipe at likely presidential hopeful Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to cut off aid to Egypt.

Mike Huckabee

A former pastor and two-term governor of Arkansas known for his staunch social conservatism, Mike Huckabee has couched his strong and steadfast support for U.S. foreign aid in moral, even biblical terms.

“The simple reality is that every time America is making its presence known in any government across the world, it will be far more effective when it delivers bread than when it delivers bombs,” Huckabee said in 2012.

A Huckabee administration would likely elevate the role of faith-based organizations in the U.S. foreign aid program even further. During a 2008 visit to Rwanda shortly after his first White House bid, Huckabee stressed the importance of faith in the fight against global poverty.

The White House’s northern facade as seen at night. Photo by: Adam Fagen / CC BY-NC-SA


Rand Paul

The face of the Republican Party’s ascendant libertarian wing, Sen. Rand Paul has positioned himself as the leading critic of U.S. foreign aid in the U.S. Senate since he was elected to the chamber over four years ago.

“I've come to the conclusion that maybe we should start by eliminating foreign aid from countries that burn our flag and hate us,” Paul said last year, moderating his earlier position to cut U.S  foreign aid entirely, even to Israel.

In January of this year, Paul introduced legislation that would halt U.S. aid to the Palestinian territories until it withdraws its request to join the International Criminal Court — an effort by the freshman senator to prevent the Palestinian Authority from lodging war-crimes charges against Israel. Paul’s earlier proposals to withhold aid to Egypt, Pakistan and Libya have attracted little support in the U.S. Senate, even among his Republican colleagues.

Ted Cruz

Regarded as the firebrand conservative in the Republican presidential field, Ted Cruz has championed a muscular U.S. foreign policy as a freshman senator. Cruz, however, has given little indication that he sees U.S. foreign aid as essential to advancing U.S. interests abroad — with the exception, that is, of America’s closest allies.

“We need to stop sending foreign aid to nations that hate us,” Cruz said in 2013.

Cruz was one of a handful of Republican senators to vote for Paul’s 2013 proposal to withhold aid from Egypt after the coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi. He has been adamantly opposed, however, to any cuts to U.S. foreign aid to Israel, the biggest recipient of U.S. military aid.

Rick Perry

A three-term former governor of Texas, Rick Perry grabbed the headlines during his first presidential bid four years ago when he took the hard-line position of effectively zeroing out the U.S. foreign aid budget, even for Israel.

“The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is gonna start at zero dollars,” Perry said at a 2011 Republican presidential debate. “It’s time for us as a country to say no to foreign aid to countries that don’t support the United States of America.”

More recently, last year, Perry argued that the United States should withhold foreign aid from Mexico and other Central American countries until they stemmed the flow of child migrants to the United States — just the reverse of the Obama administration’s position.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of U.S. aid, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Piccio

    Lorenzo Piccio

    Lorenzo is a former contributing analyst for Devex. Previously Devex's senior analyst for development finance in Manila.