As soon as Hurricane Harvey hit, Mexico — a country described by President Donald Trump as a source of rapists and drugs — stepped up to offer boats, food and other aid to the United States.
Another offer of help came from Venezuela, a country in severe political and economic crisis that has been repeatedly sanctioned by the Trump administration; it said it could give $5 million in aid.
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The European Union has proudly noted that it is sharing its satellite mapping with U.S. emergency responders dealing the Harvey’s devastation. This despite Trump’s chastisement of European countries he views as overly dependent on the U.S. military.
Then there’s tiny Taiwan, which has reportedly offered $800,000 in aid — a number likely calculated to annoy China as much as to curry favor with Trump.
But compared to past crises, the list of foreign governments lining up to help the United States this time is relatively short for the time being. And the few countries that have raised their hand may get more out of it – politically, at least – than the U.S.
The relative dearth of global goodwill, some analysts say, may stem from anger at Trump over his “America First” approach to the world, which has irked even staunch U.S. allies.
“Foreign governments are holding back, and that hasn’t been the case historically,” said Markos Kounalakis, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. “They appear to be much more cautious, whether it’s for domestic political reasons or displeasure with President Trump. Do they want to be seen as helping Trump?”
The United States is developed and wealthy enough that it rarely needs foreign assistance. But there can be a political payoff for other countries that make an offer.
Within days of Hurricane Katrina overwhelming New Orleans back in 2005, dozens of nations had offered help, in cash or in kind, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The generosity then came even amid international anger over the fallout from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but it also followed America’s own assistance to countries devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami of late 2004. Some of the countries hardest hit by the tsunami, including Sri Lanka and Thailand, pledged to return the favor to the United States in its hour of need.
The United States didn’t use most of the international aid offered back then for a variety of reasons, some of them logistical, but the Bush administration was gracious in acknowledging the offers and offering its thanks.
In comments to the press on Thursday, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert noted that the leaders of Canada and Mexico had both called the White House to offer condolences and assistance.
“The president was deeply touched by those phone calls,” Bossert said. He said decisions about what offers would be taken would be made over time by government divisions including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Department.
Since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas a week ago, Mexico has been most prominent in offering help. It has said it will send food, boats and other supplies to help in the recovery effort.
“We are neighbors, we are friends. That’s what friends do,” the country’s foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, said while visiting Washington on Wednesday.
But there’s little question that in showcasing its generosity – the country’s diplomats have gone out of their way to make sure the public is aware of it – Mexico is drawing a contrast with Trump, as well as potentially positioning itself amid ongoing talks about reshaping the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The president usually talks about Mexico only to slam it over trade issues or insist it has to pay for a border wall.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday thanked Mexico for its offer, but he did not say if the U.S. would accept the aid, and the State Department stayed deliberately vague about it.
A Mexican official, however, noted that Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas had accepted the offer. The official told POLITICO that Mexico “will be working with FEMA and Texas authorities in the following days to deliver the aid,” suggesting the U.S. federal government had signed off.
Venezuela’s government, which the U.S. increasingly identifies as a dictatorship, said it would provide $5 million worth of aid to deluged stricken communities through its subsidiary company Citgo Petroleum Corp.
“We express our solidarity with the Americans affected by the hurricane,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said, according to media reports.
It was an astonishing offer given the deepening poverty inside Venezuela, where people are having problems buying food, medicine and other basic necessities. The Trump administration is unlikely to accept it given the growing animosity between the two governments – in mid-August, Trump even said the U.S. would consider taking military action against Venezuela.
The European Union’s satellite assistance followed a request from FEMA. EU High Representative Federica Mogherini stressed in a statement: “The US can count on the European Union as a strong and an historic ally for all our support.”
Whether the U.S. will take up Taiwan’s offer is unclear, but the government in Taipei has in the past been hopeful that Trump, who has taken an antagonistic approach to China, will support Taiwan’s hopes for independence. In the weeks ahead of his inauguration, Trump broke with standard protocol and spoke on the phone with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, infuriating China.
Beyond hurricanes, past examples of unusual aid offers to the United States include longtime U.S. nemesis Iran’s offer to assist in the disastrous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2014, at the height of the Ebola virus crisis in Africa, the government of Cuba sent medical professionals to work alongside U.S. personnel trying to stop the outbreak.
James Carafano, a top official at the conservative Heritage Foundation, argued that the relatively small number of aid offers from abroad has little to do with views of Trump and more to do with a sense that the United States can manage Harvey. The U.S. seems more prepared this time than it did when Katrina struck, causing chaos and killing hundreds.
Aid offers to the United States are usually about gaining some sort of political favor because “there’s actually very few areas where the United States needs foreign assistance,” Carafano said, adding that those areas tend to be highly technical in nature.
Analysts and former U.S. officials noted that more offers of help could emerge in the days ahead as the full scope of the disaster comes into view. Foreign governments generally tend to distinguish between the American people and the American government, and many would want to help suffering U.S. residents even if they don’t like their president.
Moira Whelan, a former State Department official under the Barack Obama administration, said one reason some foreign governments may be holding back is that they don’t have many points of contact within the Trump administration.
Most leadership positions at the State Department have yet to be filled, for instance, so some countries may not know who to ask about what they can do.
“The lack of meaningful relationships with individuals in the administration certainly is” an issue, Whelan said. “I think they want to help people but no one is suggesting great ways for them to do that.”