Trump has berated allies and seemed to question the alliance’s future.
Shortly after President Donald Trump rattled the U. S.-built international order and questioned the role of American leadership on a trip to Europe, two of his predecessors gathered in Arkansas and defended U. S. leadership and international aid.
Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, speaking at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock on Thursday, stressed the importance of American aid around the world.
“One of the lessons of 9/11 is the human condition elsewhere matters to the security of our country,” Bush said at the event, a graduation ceremony for Presidential Leadership Scholars, a program involving the Bush, Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Lyndon B. Johnson foundations and centers. “And, therefore, the idea of helping others alleviate disease and poverty and hunger is in our national interest. Obviously the United States can’t solve every problem, but we can set priorities.”
He spoke specifically about his administration’s PEPFAR program aimed at battling AIDS in Africa.
“If America isn’t willing to stand for the protection of innocent life, what are we all about?” he said. “I view the role of the United States as very important. The truth of the matter is the way the world is today, if the U. S. takes the lead others tend to follow. People say ‘Well we don’t have enough money.’ Well, let me just tell you, in PEPFAR one half of one percent of the government goes to help save over 21 million lives.”
Clinton also spoke about the power of U. S. aid, linking the discussion directly to Trump’s complaints that the United States shoulders too much of the financial burden for the defense of Europe.
“The president’s made a big issue of our NATO allies not paying 2 percent of their GDP in military,” Clinton said. “The world committed years ago to spend seven-tenths of 1 percent of GDP on development aid. And so far only Norway and the U. A. E. are above that number.”
“We get a good return on this,” Clinton said. “He can tell you how many friends America has just because of PEPFAR.”
And Clinton pushed back directly on the notion that the United States is being ripped off abroad.
“The average person thinks we spend 15 to 25 percent of the federal budget on foreign assistance and it’s more like 1 percent of the budget, and well under 1 percent of GDP,” Clinton said.
“Do you really want to say we’re going to make everybody have a big military but we’re not going to help anybody build their own future and change their own lives?” Clinton asked. “I don’t think so.”
The remarks came just hours after Trump wrapped up a trip to the NATO summit at which he berated allies and seemed to question the future of the alliance.
Trump has repeatedly demanded that NATO allies significantly increase their defense spending, and used the summit to call for members’ defense spending to double from the previously agreed-upon 2 percent of GDP to 4 percent – an ask that many foreign officials see as unrealistic.
“I told people that I would be very unhappy if they don’t up their commitments very substantially because the United States has been paying a tremendous amount,” Trump said during a news conference on Thursday.