May 23, 2022

How Much Does the Government Spend on International Affairs?

Congress and the President have thus far provided $54 billion in supplemental appropriations related to Ukraine this year. About half of that funding has been allocated to the Department of Defense; most of the remaining half has been assigned to the Department of State or for other activities related to international affairs. Such funding related to the war in Ukraine now makes up a large part of total appropriations classified as international affairs. Many Americans believe that this category is one of the largest parts of the budget, but even when the additional spending for Ukraine is considered, that is not the case.

Federal spending for international affairs, which supports American diplomacy and development aid, is a small portion of the U.S. budget. It covers agencies such as the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Peace Corps, which are all non-military initiatives that work to improve international relations. In fiscal year 2021, the government spent $1.6 trillion on discretionary programs, of which $59 billion — or about 4 percent — was for international affairs. When viewed relative to the entire budget, including mandatory programs and interest payments, spending on international affairs is an even smaller share — less than 1 percent of total spending in 2021.

About 4 percent of discretionary spending in 2021 was classified as international affairs

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In 2021, the largest category of the budget for international affairs was international development and humanitarian assistance. That category, which includes global health programs and international disaster assistance, accounted for $34 billion of discretionary spending. The next largest category, conduct of foreign affairs, which includes diplomatic, consular, and border security programs, resulted in $15 billion of discretionary outlays.

Over the past 50 years, appropriations for international affairs have accounted for a small and relatively stable portion of discretionary spending — ranging between 3.0 percent and 5.2 percent of the total.

Spending on international affairs has remained relatively stable as a share of total discretionary spending

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In recent months, lawmakers have enacted two rounds of supplemental appropriations related to the war in Ukraine. Such legislation provided about $26 billion of budget authority in 2022 for the State Department, which controls most spending on international affairs. While such funds amount to a substantial increase for those activities in percentage terms, they do not represent a large increase in the context of the level of overall discretionary spending.

This year, supplemental appropriations for Ukraine have increased funding for the State Department by 43 percent

Even when factoring in additional spending on Ukraine, the United States does not devote a large share of its budget to international affairs. The country’s long-term fiscal imbalance is based on the structural mismatch between spending and revenues.


Related: Key Drivers of the National Debt


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