May 30, 2023

How Much Does the Government Spend on International Affairs?

Federal spending for foreign 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 2022, the government spent $1.7 trillion on discretionary programs, of which $71 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 2022.

Spending on foreign affairs accounts for only 4percent of discretionary spending


In 2022, the largest category of the budget for foreign affairs was international development and humanitarian assistance. It allocates funds to global health programs that help fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria as well as programs related to maternal and children’s health in other countries. The category also includes funding for humanitarian assistance and protection through programs such as International Disaster Assistance, Migration and Refugee Assistance, and Food for Peace, which are administered by USAID and the State Department. That category of international affairs accounted for $34 billion of discretionary spending. The second largest category, international security assistance, aims to advance U.S. national security claims by strengthening military and law enforcement capabilities of U.S. partners, reducing the flow of illicit products such as nuclear materials and narcotics, and supporting peacekeeping operations in fragile states. Spending on such efforts resulted in $26 billion of discretionary outlays in 2022. Other spending covers conduct of foreign affairs, which includes diplomatic, consular, and border security programs.

Over the past 50 years, appropriations for international affairs have accounted for a small and relatively stable portion of discretionary spending — ranging between 3.1 percent and 5.2 percent of the total. The fluctuations in spending reflect changes in global challenges faced by the United States at certain times. Efforts to promote peace in the Middle East, to support new democracies, to fight disease, to stabilize fragile or failed states, and to combat global terrorism have all impacted the amount of aid abroad. Notably, there were spikes in international spending following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Ebola outbreak in 2013, and when Ukraine was invaded by Russia in 2014.

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


The most recent increase in the category of international affairs came in 2022 (a 20 percent increase from 2021) in order to provide support to the more-recent invasion of Ukraine. In fiscal year 2023, lawmakers approved $12.3 billion in funding for Ukraine through the Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act and then an additional $47.3 billion via the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023.

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 size of the budget. The country’s long-term fiscal imbalance is based on the structural mismatch between spending and revenues. Federal spending — driven by rising healthcare costs, demographics, and interest payments on the national debt — is paired with revenues that are insufficient to meet the commitments that have been made. Making progress on America’s debt and deficits requires addressing those larger, fundamental drivers over the long term.

Related: Key Drivers of the National Debt

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