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Foreign Aid’s Outsized Role in Our Foreign Policy
by Scott Kelly
Congress decided to show its ass again this past week, barely accomplishing the bare minimum of keeping the government open as we all got to observe that while there may be adults in the room, they have no idea where their kids are.
In the backdrop of the pending government shutdown and ouster of the speaker of the house by hardliners in his own party, we saw politicians in both houses wringing their hands and decrying the final deal that was struck to keep the government temporarily open because it lacked funding to pay the troops and keep them supplied.
Not ours, mind you, but Ukraine’s. We saw members of both parties offended that in order to avoid a shutdown and keep their own troops paid and their families out of soup kitchen lines, they had to table approving further funding for Ukraine, funding that less than half the American public supports. We saw Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill) vote against the temporary funding measure because it lacked Ukraine funding, Sen. Michel Bennet (D-Colo.) hold up the bill in the senate, all while republican senators blamed house democrats for not voting down the measure when it was originally brought due to a lack of Ukraine funding.
The ridiculousness of the whole situation aside, it does tie back to the larger question of what purpose does American foreign aid spending serve and how is it justified when it takes dollars away from domestic priorities. What’s the case for funding a war in Ukraine, corona virus research labs in China, and wells in Africa, when we have a homelessness crisis, crumbling infrastructure, and ongoing disaster recovery efforts at home?
How Foreign Aid is Critical to Our Security
Foreign aid, in one form or another, has been key to America’s foreign policy and national security strategy in the post World War II era. The clearest example of this was the Marshal Plan, America’s effort to rebuild Europe. The success of this effort to finance Europe’s reconstruction was instrumental to our national security by gaining us a suite of powerful allies to both trade with and later enter security agreements with. There wouldn’t be a strong NATO alliance to stand up to the Soviet Union if it hadn’t been for the benevolent foresight of the makers of the Marshall Plan, funded mind you at the same time we drastically expanded benefits for veterans through the G.I. Bill and managing to continue paying for FDR’s “new deal” policies at home.
President Kennedy formalized U.S. foreign aid as a key policy tool, creating the Peace Corps and consolidating a myriad of different aid programs under USAID in the State Department, with the goal of fostering economic development abroad. This had two objectives. First, to get more and more countries involved in global trade, based on the belief that a rising tide raises all ships and that countries that trade with each other rarely fight each other. And second, to counter the spread of authoritarian communism by seeding capitalism and, it was believed then and now, through it democracy (China has become a great example of where this failed epically, but that’s a whole other topic). Foreign aid spending, for military, economic, or “humanitarian” reasons has now become a routine part of U.S. foreign policy, with 69 billion dollars spent in 2022 alone. This is only 1% of the 6.27 trillion dollars the federal government spent that year, but are we getting value for our money?
Too Much of A Good Thing?
The value of U.S. foreign aid is a hotly debated subject. It’s easy in retrospect to look back at the efforts undertaken in the immediate aftermath of World War II and find ways to directly credit them with staving off future conflict. After all, without the economic recovery in western European states brought on by the Marshall Plan the NATO alliance would never have been possible, or at least not as effective at deterring soviet aggression. As we get deeper into the second half of the 20th century though, the record becomes more mixed.
Perhaps the statesmen that lived through World War II had a clearer vision of the true nature of geopolitics than those who followed and so were able to wield aid more deftly. Perhaps we became victims of our own success following the end of the Cold War, assuming that aid could solve all ills, and feeling secure in the belief that as long as we supported development everywhere, we minimized the odds of having to fight anywhere. The long, costly failures of our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Global War on Terror despite prolific military and economic aid to both countries have highlighted the limits of what aid can accomplish in the most painful way possible, and China’s increasing authoritarianism as they emerge as our chief geopolitical rival has shown that blindly bankrolling another nation’s integration into the global economy does not guarantee that country will become more democratic or a better global neighbor.
Coming Full Circle
Which brings us back to the current day. Is funding Ukraine’s defense critical to our national security? Is there a limiting principle at play? Is it likely to change the outcome of the conflict as we watch Ukraine’s much vaunted counteroffensive make minimal progress and Russia’s economy continue to function despite what were supposed to be crippling sanctions? McCarthy torpedoed his own career and in doing so kept our troops out of the breadline for 45 more days, but is this really something to play chicken over between political factions when it directly affects our own uniformed men and woman’s ability to keep chicken on the dinner table at home?
The obvious answer to most Americans appears to elude our politicians. Perhaps we shouldn’t single out this one instance too much. Perhaps it’s too much to hope, given the current state of politics in America, that our elected leaders could have a mature conversation about what America’s priorities are, and how to best allocate our limited resources to address those priorities. What can be said is that when a plurality of our politicians are so concerned with the possibility they may not be able to pay for someone else’s military that they are willing to entertain the notion that it makes sense to risk not being able to pay our own, something is deeply broken in the heart of our politics.