Would Biden's foreign aid approach be progressive, or bipartisan?

Democratic U.S. presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden attends a drive-in campaign stop in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Brian Snyder / Reuters

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Since Joe Biden secured the Democratic presidential nomination, the party’s progressive wing has sought to push the candidate and his team to the political left on a wide range of issues. While foreign policy has been one arena for these intraparty negotiations, questions about global development, global health, and humanitarian assistance — perhaps unsurprisingly — have not risen to the same level of attention.

These topics rarely feature in U.S. political campaigns, overshadowed by more visible foreign policy and national security concerns such as military assistance, nonproliferation, and combating terrorism, so it may not be surprising that they have not been subject to the same level of debate between progressives and moderates.

One result of that, however, is that if Biden wins the Nov. 3 presidential election, and if left-leaning elements of the Democratic party are successful in pushing his administration to adopt more progressive positions, it is not entirely clear what that might mean when it comes to global development.

“In a lot of other areas of policy, the left has set some big priorities and organized themselves effectively to push the Democratic party to either pay attention to specific issues or adopt more progressive stances,” said Andrew Albertson, executive director of Foreign Policy for America, which advocates for “strong, principled American foreign policy.”

Many of those priorities have emerged from the “unity task forces” that brought together progressives who supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and moderates who support Biden. Foreign policy — let alone foreign aid policy — was not among the six policy areas that progressives sought to influence through those discussions.

“It is a real open question to what degree [progressives] will in fact prioritize international development,” Albertson said.

Biden’s detailed policy platform, as well as his own track record, offer clues about what his approach to development might entail.

Most seem to agree that core elements of a Biden foreign aid policy would be reestablishing development as a core pillar of foreign policy, alongside defense and diplomacy, and returning to a more supportive relationship with multilateral institutions. Many expect that for a Biden administration, particularly one faced with responding to a global pandemic, that would mean increased funding for global development, global health, and humanitarian assistance.

“It’s not like Republican internationalists don’t exist in our country. They do, in great numbers. They’re just not currently in Congress, and that has some really big implications for how the politics of development might shake out.”

— Andrew Albertson, executive director, Foreign Policy for America

Rather than representing a major shift to the left, however, investing in development looks more like a return to the politics of foreign aid that characterized the pre-Trump era.

“I don’t think that’s a function of development moving left … so much as just a resourcing of bipartisan priorities to invest in strong American diplomatic and development efforts,” Albertson said.

Democrats and Republicans have often differed over particular approaches to development, and reliably clashed on specific policy issues such as abortion and fossil fuel investments, but significant segments of both parties have tended at least to share a common view that global development serves America’s national interests and reflects a national moral obligation.

While positioning development as a core pillar of U.S. foreign policy would be an ambitious and challenging undertaking for a Biden administration, that is not necessarily because it would represent a bold progressive agenda, but because four years of Donald Trump’s administration have posed an unprecedented threat to what was previously a bipartisan consensus.

Trump’s own rejection of the value of foreign assistance — except in cases where it serves narrow, transactional purposes — is unmistakable. The president proposed four consecutive budgets that sought to slash foreign aid spending by upward of 20%, and then made repeated attempts to rescind money that Congress appropriated.

While bipartisan coalitions of lawmakers succeeded in rejecting those proposals, many Republican lawmakers who care about development have already left, or are leaving office, in what amounts to an “extraordinary exodus of Republican internationalists” from Congress, Albertson said.

“It’s not like Republican internationalists don’t exist in our country. They do, in great numbers. They’re just not currently in Congress, and that has some really big implications for how the politics of development might shake out,” Albertson said.

If a Biden administration were to prioritize big investments in global development, it would only appear liberal relative to the Republican Party’s steady shift away from what was once a shared bipartisan priority.

“The reality is there has been a bipartisan consensus for a while that prioritizes U.S. leadership in the world on development, on humanitarian issues, and Trump has been an awful aberration from that,” Albertson said.

That return to a formerly-bipartisan norm might be the overarching foreign aid story under a Biden administration, but there are still some key political dynamics surrounding America’s development policy where progressives hope to leave their mark.

While both Democrats and Republicans have, in the past, advocated for U.S. leadership on global development, progressives would likely do so within the context of a broader campaign against what they view as the over-militarization of American foreign policy.

“You don’t have to make every argument in terms of national security … The reason to support people’s basic dignity is not to prevent them from killing you. It’s because people are entitled to security and dignity.”

— Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders

This could entail, “a massive reassessment of the emphasis we’ve placed on military tools” and the outsized role of the Department of Defense in implementing American foreign policy, said Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Sanders.

“We need to make the political decision and commitment that we are going to resource [the Department of] State and these other tools appropriately,” Duss said.

While Democrats and Republicans might share that commitment, progressives are more likely to combine it with a more “politically difficult” argument about whether the U.S. government should be spending $750 billion per year on defense, he said.

That could mean the U.S. aid community will have to consider its relationship to national security interests, and whether they are willing to make the case that the U.S. government should spend less on defense and more on development and diplomacy — even if that means alienating some of their military advocates.

“I think progressives bear some responsibility, because especially after 9/11, it became all war, everywhere, all the time, and the easiest way to make your case was [to say], ‘oh well this is security too. This is part of national security too,’” Duss said.

“You don’t have to make every argument in terms of national security … The reason to support people’s basic dignity is not to prevent them from killing you. It’s because people are entitled to security and dignity,” he said.

Operating within that post-9/11 framework has come with big costs for humanitarians and development professionals.

They have found themselves working in an environment characterized by a proliferation of sanctions and compliance regimes that limit their access to vulnerable communities, and at a time when countries and armed groups are increasingly willing to violate the laws of war, said Nazanin Ash, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee.

Progressives view the erosion of those norms as the product of a worldview in which ends justify means, and peoples’ rights are secondary to national security interests, Ash said.

“I think a progressive view takes a more expansive view on shared interest and shared prosperity and shared security ... and therefore means matter,” she said.

Ash expects progressives would push for, “a rights-based approach that is specifically about addressing ... economic inequality and political inequalities, and that is specifically about empowering local populations to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.”

“I think a major departure with progressives, is they don't necessarily privilege U.S. government solutions,” Ash said.

That might imply that U.S. development efforts would move away from a “paternalistic,” “project-ized” form of aid, in favor of more flexible and responsive engagement that privileges local expertise and seeks to hold political leaders accountable to their citizens through a focus on anti-corruption and rule-of-law, Ash said.

Duss described a similar shift in focus.

“Progressives are bringing this idea [that] human dignity is an end in itself, and obviously the U.S. government’s first responsibility is to the security and prosperity of the American people, but we have a role to play in helping to advance those values for people around the world,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean unilaterally. It doesn’t mean through overthrowing people’s governments, but that means through seriously investing in and engaging with and strengthening a lot of these global institutions and norms that we ourselves played a huge role in building in the first place,” he added.

Progressives are more likely to challenge the American exceptionalist view that a powerful United States is inherently a force for good in the world, and to demand that the U.S. government’s actions overseas reflect the country’s values, Ash said.

“If we're going to be a force for good, prove it,” she said.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.