While no federal account should be protected from cuts given the magnitude and severity of the budget and debt crisis, singling out foreign aid for disproportionate cuts—which is exactly what has happened—is a serious mistake the United States as a world leader will pay for in the future. While polls show a majority of Americans believe foreign aid makes up 25 percent of the federal budget, in reality it is less than 1 percent: cutting foreign aid will not make a dent in the federal budget deficit, but it will leave a gaping hole in our foreign policy and diminish our position in the world as a great power.
The Bush Administration—and now the Obama Administration—in its national security strategy documents (2002 and 2006) famously argued that the threats over the next two decades facing the United States were “less from conquering states than from failing ones.” Al Queda was given sanctuary in three failed states—Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan—during the decade before 9/11. The same strategies argued that three instruments of national power be used to address the problems of fragile and failed states—defense, diplomacy, and development—what are called the three D’s. These strategies have elevated development programs—which are funded using foreign aid dollars—to a central place in America’s global strategy because they are often the most effective of the three D’s in addressing state failure and fragility. Disproportionate cuts will weaken America’s national security and rob the President—any President—of a critical instrument of national power at a moment of great international turmoil. George Bush orchestrated the largest proportionate increase in foreign aid (even excluding the expensive Iraq reconstruction program) of any American president since Harry Truman because of the threats facing the United States, and thus the proposed reductions pending in Congress are an assault on his legacy.
One of the most important duties—if not the primary duty—of the federal government under the U.S. constitution is national defense. While our armed forces remain essential in protecting our national defense they are not enough; today national defense must be defined more broadly than simply a strong military. This is one reason former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, dozens of retired senior military officers, and major business leaders are leading an effort to protect the U.S. government’s foreign aid program. It is the reason General David Petraeus, one of the most visionary military officers of our era, has consistently argued larger aid budgets protect our troops by making conflict less likely.
At its core, no element of national defense can be delegated to the states or privatized which is why nearly every American president since World War II—Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative—has supported a robust U.S. government aid program, even in times of fiscal constraint. Policymakers in Washington must be able to use aid resources to address global and national problems which affect America’s vital interests—such as efforts to stop disease pandemics, to respond after a tsunami or other natural disaster, to implement agricultural programs to combat destabilizing food price increases, or to help newly emerging, but unstable democracies to build competent institutions. Some argue private foreign aid coming from foundations, corporations, religious charities, and non-governmental organizations can substitute for public dollars in funding development programs.
While public-private partnerships between the U.S. government aid and these private organizations have grown dramatically over the past decade and should continue, often private aid does not go to the countries and challenges U.S. government policy makers deem central to U.S. national interests. Very little private foreign aid, for example, supports democracy and good governance programs even though they are critically important to build functioning states in countries coming out of a period of dictatorship, such as in the recent Arab revolutions. Instead of cutting foreign aid, Congress and the White House should reform it; unfortunately legislation written by the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees to do just that are stuck in a legislative quagmire. There is simply no substitute for a robust U.S. government aid program: cutting these programs disproportionately will put our national security at risk and undermine America’s global leadership at a moment it is most needed.