Good news and bad news: It appears the U.S. Congress has finally found bipartisan consensus, but it’s on the dumbest imaginable response to the deficit — deep cuts in U.S. foreign aid and diplomacy. Thanks to the New York Times for shining a spotlight on these cuts with today’s front-page story. Both the Senate and House bills now moving through Congress would “cut spending across the board, and around the world,” the Times reports. A leader of the aid group Mercy Corps summed up the impact of the aid cuts nicely: “The budget impact is negligible. The impact around the world is enormous.”
These cuts are founded on three pillars of ignorance — misunderstanding of the amount of money, misunderstanding of the effects of the spending, and misunderstanding about the extent of poverty in the world and its impact. Look at them one by one.
1. Do the math. When Americans were asked in a poll less than a year ago how much money goes to foreign aid, the median response was 25 percent of the federal budget. When asked how much it should be, they said 10 percent. This has been consistent over recent years through a number of polls. The actual budget (before being cut) is only 1 percent. Only 20 percent of Americans think foreign aid should be that little.
That 1-percent budget for foreign aid and diplomacy was $55 billion in fiscal year 2010, less than a tenth of the military budget. And that was the peak after a decade in which, post-9/11, both parties realized that engagement with the world mattered. Last year it dropped by $6 billion. Then in last April’s Chicken game over a government shutdown, it was cut by $8 billion, “the single largest cut to any one department under the deal…” (NY Times). Now the House and Senate are each proposing further multi-billion-dollar cuts for next year, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describes as 16 percent for the State Department and 41 percent for humanitarian aid. The only sacred area exempt from cuts is $3 billion in foreign aid for Israel. (There is also a crazy proposal in the House of Representatives, unlikely to become law, that would cut U.S. funding for UN peacekeeping and make UN dues “voluntary.”)
2. Look at the effects. Diplomacy and foreign aid do things that military power cannot do. Indeed we’ve seen the limits of military power in the past decade, and with U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraq in the coming months, who is expected to pick up the slack and exert ongoing U.S. influence there? The State Department.
The proposed cuts would devastate recent efforts to use “smart power” (a term attributed to Obama and Clinton in the NYT but properly credited to Harvard’s Joseph Nye), meaning that military power alone cannot effectively project American power around the world. Diplomacy and aid, along with intangibles such as our rhetoric, also influence the world’s powers and peoples. Then-secretary of defense Robert Gates even proposed taking money away from his own department to beef up the State Department. Unfortunately the United States is on a path in which we have only one tool, a hammer, and everything looks like a nail.
Some ignorant people claim that foreign aid is just money wasted, and doesn’t do any good in poor countries. Tell that to people living in poverty in Africa and South Asia, where child and maternal mortality rates have been cut dramatically in the past decade or two. Vaccination drives are working, infectious diseases are being contained, and AIDS medicines are reaching far more people in Africa thanks to the efforts of President Bush, pushed by evangelical Christian groups (foreign aid is not a Democrat issue).
3. Understand poverty. Many Americans are ignorant of the extent of poverty in poor countries. Lately there is a feeling that we have our own problems at home so we can’t afford to help people in other countries. This new isolationist sentiment is possible only because people do not see how desperate our fellow human beings are and how little it would take to help them. For example, Rep. Kay Granger from Texas criticized $250 million spent by the State Department to help Pakistan after devastating floods, since after all Americans also have floods. But the amount here is a less than a dollar per American and the Pakistanis’ situation is far more desperate than that of any flooded American. They are fighting for their lives, by the millions, with little or no government help, no savings, no infrastructure, everything wiped out — this in one of the world’s poorest countries, one of central strategic importance to the United States, the hotbed of Islamic militancy, the location of a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons, and the source of many problems in next-door Afghanistan. We are officially spending nearly $100 billion (with a B) per year in Afghanistan, so picking on the $250 million (with an M) in Pakistan flood aid just makes no sense. And Rep. Granger can only say that because she has no idea what poverty in Pakistan really looks like and how different it is to be flooded out in a rich country versus a poor country.
Well, I’m a flag-flying patriot but sometimes I do wonder about our Congress. How can we ever advance the national interest when political rhetoric is founded on ignorance, and politicians whip up sentiment against foreigners who are gobbling up our hard-earned tax dollars for no good reason. Seriously people, you don’t have to be Professor Nye at Harvard University to see that slashing the State Department and foreign aid budget just ain’t “smart.”