By Senator John Kerry
Cutting foreign aid has always been a guaranteed applause line on the political stump. There are no global Grover Norquists pushing a pledge not to slash the State Department budget, nor are there millions of AARP seniors rallying to protect America's investments overseas. President Reagan once summed it up succinctly: "Foreign aid suffers from a lack of domestic constituency, in large part because the results of the programs are often not immediately visible and self-evident." And today, with the national debt approaching $14.7 trillion, Americans rightly demand fiscal responsibility.
Yet efforts in Congress to cut billions from the president's proposed budget for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are short-sighted. While it is true that our economic strength at home determines our strength in the world, it's also vital to deal with our current fiscal challenge intelligently. After all, we can't be strong at home if we aren't strong in the world.
President Reagan wisely reminded us when talking about security assistance programs that these efforts are "an essential complement to our defense effort" and "directly enhance the security of the United States." Reagan knew that diplomacy and development policy neutralize threats before they become crises; manage crises if threats escalate; and assure security and stability after conflicts are resolved, all at a fraction of the cost of military deployment. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once pointed out, if you took the entire Foreign Service roster of American diplomatic personnel, you could barely staff one aircraft carrier.
President Obama's new request for international-affairs work comprises a mere 1.5% of his budget. Is there a cost to taxpayers? Of course. But all of our foreign aid programs and foreign policy initiatives--from sending diplomats to Afghanistan to helping reverse the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa--cost less than one-tenth of our annual military expenditures.
There's nothing fiscally conservative about starving our foreign policy budget of a billion dollars today only to spend a trillion dollars years later in armed conflict. Every day, the State Department leads operations that strengthen our security. Diplomats and development experts support counterterrorism efforts in countries like Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Programs to destroy caches of small arms, shoulder-fired missiles and mines deprive our enemies of the tools they might use to attack us, our allies and our partners. Teaching foreign military officers American values and skills creates additional defense capacity so that we can fight together, with burdens shared equitably.
Training foreign law-enforcement and counterterrorism officials in American investigative techniques increases their capability and our security. Crucially, implementing stricter export controls, training international weapons inspectors, and securing our borders allows us to guard against that most pernicious of threats: terrorism by weapons of mass destruction.
Our global presence does something else: It creates jobs. Through our contributions to international financial institutions like the World Bank, we don't just lift the economies of low-income countries but we open markets for American businesses. That's one reason why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has elevated economic statecraft to a top priority, recognizing the connections between promoting our businesses abroad and creating jobs at home. We've got a tax code that spans more than 72,000 pages and a federal budget of $3.8 trillion--surely we can find enough tax loopholes to close and wasteful spending to cut in order to preserve the $57 billion required for our global investment.
The stakes are enormous. In the coming years, we will have great opportunities to build and redefine our relationships around the world, particularly in the Middle East. The long-term outcome of the Arab Awakening will depend on vigilance and engagement, which is why this year's proposed budget requests additional funding for the region.
We have begun to make a difference in Tunisia, where USAID quickly funded the nongovernmental organizations and new political parties born in the wake of President Ben Ali's departure. We need to continue to help the people of the Middle East and North Africa achieve their legitimate political and economic aspirations. We can either pay now to help brave people build a better, democratic future or we will certainly pay later in American blood and treasure.
We know the difference we can make. Paired with forward-thinking diplomacy, development programs can help turn old enemies (like Vietnam) into new friends, and turn friends (like South Korea) into partners that share the burdens of leadership.
Today, the U.S. and Vietnam are forging a genuine partnership in the world's most vital strategic region. Our investment in Korea's future through programs like the Asia Foundation, which promotes a peaceful, prosperous and open Asia-Pacific region, is now being repaid many times through the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement and a new global assistance partnership. Most recently, our diplomatic overtures to Burma have been met with democratic reforms.
In addition to these strategic efforts, foreign assistance programs that vaccinate children against polio, engage at-risk youth in Central America, give young girls in Afghanistan the opportunity to go to school, or provide HIV/AIDS treatments to millions in sub-Saharan Africa do more than just ease suffering and increase opportunity around the world. They also promote core U.S. national security interests by stabilizing regions that could otherwise become incubators for radicalism.
At this time of budget crisis, a U.S. senator trying to defend foreign aid might well be advised to seek the counsel of a political consultant if not a mental health professional. But energetic global leadership is a strategic imperative for America, not a favor we do for other countries.