Straightening out U.S. foreign aid programs

By Gordon Adams | May 28, 2007

As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan batter our national consciousness, we should recall that heady time a few years ago when some observers thought the United States would serve as the benign hegemon of a globalized world and the enforcer of global stability.

As Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times in 1999 (and later in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree): “Sustainable globalization still requires a stable, geopolitical power structure, which simply cannot be maintained without the active involvement of the United States. . . . The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist . . . and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.”

Friedman quotes Of Paradise and Power author Robert Kagan as saying, “Good ideas and technologies need a strong power that promotes those ideas by example and protects those ideas by winning on the battlefield.”

Today, the assertive triumphalism of these words seems quaint. Over the last seven years, the chance for responsible U.S. leadership has been squandered. We have yet to figure out how to engage the world in a smart, balanced, and non-hegemonic way. So it’s time to step aside from the police officer role and take a closer look at how we engage the world in a smarter, more balanced way.

Unfortunately, the foreign policy instruments at our disposal are dispersed across the institutional landscape. And the funds provided for these tools are inadequate and poorly coordinated. The United States runs at least seven separate programs to train and equip non-U.S. military, security, and police forces to provide stability and eradicate terrorism. The Defense Department already maintains its own big, underproducing train-and-equip program for Iraq and Afghanistan, yet Defense is seeking $750 million more to expand this program to the rest of the world and to make it permanent law.

Meanwhile, Defense and State jointly operate a $4 billion account to provide equipment, training, and services to foreign militaries. (More than 85 percent of the budget requested for this program in fiscal year 2008, which is consistent with prior years, would go to three countries–Egypt, Israel, and Jordan.) The two agencies also administer a $90 million program to bring foreign military officers to the United States for military education.

In addition, the State Department administers at least four other programs of its own that provide smaller amounts of money for “security assistance.” There is an antiterrorism training and equipping program, a program aimed at training border guards, and an assistance program for foreign military and security forces to better combat narcotics trafficking. State also has a major initiative (the Global Peace Operations Initiative) underway that would cost $95 million in fiscal year 2008 to train militaries around the world for future peacekeeping interventions.

State has tried for more than a year to create a budgetary system that links its resources for security assistance with broader economic assistance for different types of countries, focusing on five specific U.S. objectives–maintaining peace and security, governing justly and democratically, investing in human capital, fostering economic growth, and providing humanitarian assistance.

Not an easy job. In addition to security assistance, there are more than 15 foreign assistance programs in the executive branch, all with different criteria and objectives. Many target specific countries or regions because of their strategic or military importance–i.e., Russia and the former Soviet Union ($352 million), Central and Southeastern Europe ($289 million), and $4.4 billion in Economic Support Funds for more than 40 other countries (most of which goes to Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan). Other aid programs have economic and social development goals, providing financial assistance to more than 75 countries, generally in small amounts. Then there are the State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-sponsored programs that provide funds to the United Nations and related organizations for development.

After that, there are programs that target specific problems such as HIV/AIDS ($4 billion), provide U.S. funds for international and regional financial institutions ($1.8 billion), or guarantee export loans and foreign investments made by private U.S. firms.

And this doesn’t take into account the assistance programs run by the FBI, Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Commerce, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Labor, and other agencies. State has no control over most of these programs, so it cannot integrate them into a government-wide strategic design.

Lael Brainard, editor of the Brookings Institution’s recent study “Security By Other Means,” carries a “chart from hell” about U.S. foreign assistance programs, showing 50 different objectives being met by at least 20 federal departments and/or agencies.

This is not a sensible way to engage the world. As the Iraq War revealed, the government has great diplomats, but they have not been trained for the program management and reconstruction missions we are giving them. Moreover, if we wanted to retrain them and move them around the world more flexibly for these missions, we don’t have enough diplomats, State Department civilians, and USAID staff to permit a “float” for these purposes, without taking people away from other important work.

But it’s not just a question of staffing and funding, though more of each on the foreign policy side might help. We also need to ask fundamental questions. What kind of a leader do we want to be? Are we responsible for shoring up fragile states around the world? How would we step back from the hegemonic role? How will we integrate and synchronize our many nondefense tools? Should we be the world’s “security assistance” provider of choice? Who else could help? Will we ever have enough resources to provide impactful, bilateral development assistance?

Congress and the presidential candidates need to address these questions. In a new administration, they need to be put front and center in the policies and structures of the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget.

The United States is unlikely to disengage from its international role. That means we must understand how to better engage the world in the future. Americans have a large appetite for adding funds to defense and charging back into battle without reflecting on the role we should play and how the rest of the world perceives us. Now is the time for that reflection.

Together, we make the world safer.

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