Then and Now: Distribution of U.S. Security Assistance in the 21st Century

The arms, training, and other security assistance that the United States provides foreign governments fluctuates every year. Since 2000, as certain regions of the world became more central to United States security interests, their share of the U.S.’s multibillion-dollar aid programs has grown, meaning that others get smaller slices of the pie. Using the State Department’s regional groupings – South and Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Eurasia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia and the Pacific – it’s possible to map out how the geographic distribution of security assistance has shifted over time, and as a result, draw some inferences with respect to U.S. policy priorities.

Drawing from the Security Assistance Monitor (SAM) database, this analysis assigns a numerical rank, from 1-6, to each region reflecting the amount of total assistance provided to that region in a given year, one being the region that received the most security assistance that year and six the least. Using this simple scale, some interesting patterns emerge.

South and Central Asia is the region with the highest average rank, measuring exactly 2. Its consistently large security aid package is due in large part to Afghanistan, which has been the single largest U.S. security aid recipient for many years. A huge portion of the foreign military financing alloted to South and Central Asia goes toward Operation Enduring Freedom, which focuses in large part on Afghanistan. In fact, the resources sent to Afghanistan from 2000 until 2019 make up over 70 percent of all of the security assistance given to South and Central Asia for those years.

The region with the second highest position is the Middle East and North Africa with a narrowly higher score of 2.05. Given the centrality the MENA region has played in the expansive U.S. “War on Terror”, its ranking is unsurprising. There are a variety of programs that fund security assistance MENA region, including foreign military financing, international military education, and training and peacekeeping operations.

The region with the third highest score is the Western Hemisphere, with 2.6. A principle focus of security assistance of the United States’ neighbors has been to upgrade their armed forces to improve their ability to control and protect their respective territories and borders. There has been a particular focus on nations on the southern border, as they play a vital part in the transnational security interests of the United States. The last three regions have average rankings in this order: Europe and Eurasia with 4.05, Sub-Saharan Africa with 4.85, and East Asia and the Pacific with 5.45. The relatively low rank of these regions suggest that they are seen as least vital to the security interests of the United States. This particular order of the six regions of the world is also the exact ranking for three consecutive years: 2010, 2011, and 2012.

The standings are similar if the regions are organized by the ranking they received most often over the last 20 years. Under these parameters, the Middle East and North Africa is ranked in the number one position with South and Central Asia taking second place. The other four regions remained in the same order as when compared by average.

Regions that grew more essential to the United States over the years, and therefore began to receive higher rankings and more assistance, were the Middle East and North Africa, South and Central Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. On the other hand, the Western Hemisphere, East Asia and the Pacific, and Europe and Eurasia lowered in the rankings as time went on, suggesting that that their comparative significance diminished.

Consistency of ranking, or how often a region occupies a certain rank, is another way in which these regions can be set against each other. In this way, a region that occupied the number one rank for 10 years would be considered to have more consistency than a region ranked as number one for only 5 years. Tracking the movement of the regions in the overall ranking is useful because it helps to spot years that are outliers for each region. Although regions did move around in the list, there is consistency found with all six regions. This can be seen by looking at the extreme rankings of each region, what their highest and lowest positions were, and which of the regions never achieved a number one or number six ranking between 2000 and 2019. Regions who received the most aid within one particular year always stayed near the top of the rankings and the opposite is true for regions that had at least one year as the region who received the least amount of security assistance.

The region that has the most consistent ranking was East Asia and the Pacific since it was ranked sixth for 13 of the last 14 years during the timeframe examined. So this region’s importance to the United States remained very consistently low. Conversely, the Western Hemisphere is the region that has the lowest consistency because it had the same rank of three during for only seven years out of the 20 considered. This indicates that countries within the Western Hemisphere gained and lost a lot of vitalness in the eyes of the United States.

Security assistance is a central component of United States foreign policy, so it is useful to know not only where it is going but the patterns created by where it is sent. Looking at how the geographic distribution of U.S. security assistance has shifted over the past two decades offers an insight into how the U.S. policy priorities have evolved.