Likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, who in 2010 introduced a resolution to eliminate all U.S. foreign aid, said recently that he’d still like to reduce foreign aid to countries that aren’t “our friends.” Unfortunately, Sen. Paul and other isolationists miss the point of foreign aid entirely and his short-sightedness puts our country at risk.
As we face direct threats from the Islamic State, Ebola and Russian adventurism there is a bigger challenge at hand: our lack of appropriately resourced engagement around the world through the very foreign assistance that Sen. Paul and others would like to cut.
To be sure, the outcry among Americans across the country about spending our precious, overstretched tax dollars abroad is understandable. One hears the question all the time: “Why are we exporting our tax dollars to build schools, roads and health clinics in other countries when there is work to be done at home?”
The complaint makes sense in an economic vacuum; with bridges collapsing in Minnesota, school ceilings crumbling in New York, and entire police departments being let go in New Jersey, the case for aid abroad is tough to make. So why do some of the brightest minds in our country, across government and various private corporations, believe the juice is worth the squeeze?
The answer is simple: foreign assistance greatly enhances our national security.
As a former Army officer with both conventional and special operations experience, and now as a civilian focusing on our national security while operating in these environments, I have seen first-hand that the impact of our engagement abroad is tremendous. Through our foreign assistance, we can reduce the numbers of malleable young men who are radicalized and recruited into violent extremist organizations. We can lure insurgents away from fighting in hot spots around the globe to take up jobs as part of assistance programs—effectively trading AK-47s for job opportunities. And we can support American businesses investing overseas, increasing opportunity for local populations and creating jobs here at home.
Perhaps no one has said it better than Ret. Gen. John Allen, the current leader of the fight against ISIS. Allen declared that foreign assistance “… can do as much—over the long term—to prevent conflict as the deterrent effect of a carrier strike group or a Marine Expeditionary Force.” Even more to the point are remarks by Ret. Gen. Jim Mattis, a consummate U.S Marine. As the former commander of U.S. Central Command, responsible for fighting the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, few better understand the costs of insufficient international investment. Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee bluntly, “If you don’t fund the State Department (foreign operations) fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
A lack of effective engagement abroad in advance of a crisis leads to an inordinately high cost in blood and treasure after the fact. Mattis proceeded to tell the committee that “our civilian colleagues need your full support even in this difficult fiscal environment to undertake their essential role in today’s complex environment.” The nation’s arguably best-known contemporary warfighter, Ret. Adm. Bill McRaven, has consistently argued that, the more effective we are on “upstream” efforts as a nation, the less likely we are to need costly military-dominated “downstream” operations. Ret. Adm. Jim Stavridis and Ret. Gen. Tony Zinni, perhaps two of America’s most highly regarded warrior-diplomats, have reiterated as much in a recent op-ed.
It’s not just the nation’s experts in national defense that see the need for continued global engagement; business leaders also see the connection. Our assistance builds markets overseas, where 95 percent of the world’s customers live. These new markets, often opened and expanded by U.S. foreign assistance, offer new opportunities to export American-made products, in turn creating jobs for American taxpayers at home. Ed Rapp, a group president and executive office member of Caterpillar, Inc., notes, “Investing in global development and diplomacy is just good business.” Like Caterpillar, other corporate entities including Boeing, 3M, Kellogg, Lockheed Martin and more vociferously support foreign assistance, primarily from a profit-focused perspective.
Simply put, the return on investment is strong because foreign assistance works. Foreign assistance may be a hard ask in Congress because, quite frankly, there are few U.S. voters overseas. Former President Ronald Reagan once said, foreign assistance “…suffers from a lack of domestic constituency.” Nonetheless, we need our elected representatives to fund foreign assistance—especially in this time of fiscal austerity.
As Sen. John McCain stated recently, “America is facing a number of serious challenges around the globe. In addition to a strong military, investments… including foreign assistance… are vitally important. These non-military tools are not charity, but a strategic necessity.”
Our national security is at stake. Foreign assistance must remain a critical area of U.S. policy for decades to come and we expect our representatives to do everything in their power to protect our great nation. Now is not the time for isolationism.