Capstones: A Confluence of Interests and Ideals

By Alan W. Dowd, 11.28.18

In 1898, President William McKinley called on Congress “in the cause of humanity…to put an end to the barbarities, bloodshed, starvation and horrible miseries” being visited upon the Cuban people. “It is no answer to say this is all in another country, belonging to another nation, and is therefore none of our business,” he added, preemptively challenging those who would counter that U.S. aid and intervention should be limited to the narrow defense of U.S. interests.

Half-a-century later, as he urged Congress to supply hundreds of millions in aid to Greece and Turkey, President Harry Truman warned that “The seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want. They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life has died. We must keep that hope alive.”

How things change. Even though America is richer and more powerful than it was in the 1890s or 1940s, the past decade has witnessed the return of an inward-looking, world-weary America.

In the midst of reconstruction efforts in the Middle East that demanded a generational commitment, President Barack Obama announced in 2011 that “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home” and “rebuild our infrastructure.”

In response to the humanitarian-geopolitical disaster in Syria, President Donald Trump bluntly asked, “Why do we care?” So effective was Obama’s language at capturing the national mood that Trump borrowed it almost verbatim: “We have to build our own nation,” he said. “We’ve spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas, while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled,” Trump declared. “From this this day forward,” he added during his inaugural address, “it’s going to be only America first.”

The decibel level may be different, but Obama’s “nation building at home” mantra and Trump’s “America first” doctrine are two paths to the same destination: an America disconnected from, and disinterested in, the world around her. This approach to foreign policy and foreign aid is not good for the world—or America.

Relief and Rehab

The notion that, once upon a time, America focused solely on itself is more fiction than fact. As the late Robert Bremner detailed in American Philanthropy, concerted efforts to distribute foreign aid on the part of Americans date at least to 1820, when Americans provided aid to support Greek independence and care for Greek orphans. During the Irish famine in the 1840s, “To carry the contributions of Massachusetts alone required two sloops of war, four merchant ships and two steamers.” And Bremner’s book recounts this poignant episode from 1832: “When the starving people of the Cape Verde Islands rowed out to a ship hoping to buy food, they were astonished to learn that the vessel had been sent by the United States for the express purpose of relieving their necessities.”

During World War I, Americans formed the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), led by future president Herbert Hoover. The CRB distributed $1 billion in food and clothing to refugees. After the war, Hoover ran the American Relief Administration, which distributed food to war-ravaged Europe. Responding to criticism of his decision to ship food to the Soviet Union, Hoover reflected the goodness of America: “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed.”

When earthquakes devastated Japan in 1923, President Calvin Coolidge—anything but an internationalist—coordinated a nationwide fundraising campaign with the Red Cross and deployed the U.S. Pacific Fleet to deliver relief.

In 1939, long before America entered World War II, Congress began shunting tens of millions to the Red Cross to help war refugees. By 1943, America had helped create the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which distributed $4 billion in food, clothing and medicine to refugees. America accounted for 65 percent of the UNRRA’s generosity. 

After the war, Secretary of State George Marshall unveiled a $13-billion aid and relief program to help Europe rebuild. It came to be called the Marshall Plan; along with the American fighting man’s efforts on the battlefield, it saved Western civilization.

Halfway around the world, General Douglas MacArthur supplemented Japanese rations with 800,000 tons of U.S. military supplies. He then persuaded Washington to earmark $250 million for food, farming equipment and medicine for Japan—“an amount exceeding the combined budgets of the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Justice and Labor,” as a RAND report details.

Truman, like Marshall and MacArthur, recognized that foreign aid was not just a way to help those in need, but an essential tool of foreign policy. To prevent “misery…want…poverty and strife” from nurturing the seeds of totalitarianism and communism, Truman sent unprecedented amounts of aid to Turkey and Greece, offered Europe a pathway out of the rubble, and answered Stalin’s blockade of West Berlin with a 15-month airlift that delivered 2.3 million tons of aid—the first of some 450 humanitarian airlifts launched by America during the Cold War.

Taking up the mantle, President Dwight Eisenhower explained to the American people that “We could be the wealthiest and the most mighty nation, and still lose the battle of the world, if we do not help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress.”

For the balance of the Cold War, Americans poured $2 trillion in foreign aid into some of the poorest, hungriest, sickest and remotest corners of the globe

Great and Good

That’s trillion with a “t.” Trillions more have been added to the ledger since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet Jan Egeland, a former UN official and current head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, famously dismissed America as “stingy” when it comes to foreign aid. Related, it’s not uncommon to see articles belittling America for earmarking “just” $33.1 billion for official development assistance (ODA).

In truth, America’s investment in foreign aid is both more and less than those who use it as a way to score political points.

Polling consistently shows that the American people believe foreign aid to be an enormous line item in the federal budget. A 2015 study, for instance, found that “The average respondent estimated that 26 percent [of federal spending] went toward assisting other countries.” That would translate into upwards of $1 trillion in foreign aid annually. Americans devote nowhere near that amount of federal resources to foreign aid, but they do give generously to those in need overseas.

As Hudson Institute’s Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances points out, “Government aid is no longer the primary measure of a country’s generosity. U.S. private philanthropy, remittances from migrants living in the United States to their home countries and private capital flows each exceed U.S. ODA.”

In other words, the $33.1-billion ODA figure doesn’t capture U.S. charitable giving overseas ($43.9 billion), remittances ($108.7 billion) and private investment ($179.3 billion). When all those are added up, a far more accurate—and far larger—picture of U.S. overseas aid and assistance emerges: $364.9 billion.

Yet even that figure is incomplete. We must also consider the uncounted billions the United States spends by deploying military assets—specialized personnel trained to rescue, repair and rebuild; ships with desalination equipment and triage centers; transport helicopters and cargo planes capable of delivering supplies and evacuating victims—to respond to manmade and natural disasters in Cuba and Kosovo and Kurdistan, Sinjar and Somalia and Sumatra, Bosnia and Bangladesh, Tohoku and Tacloban, West Berlin and East Timor. The list—like the needs of the world’s suffering—is endless.

A prime example is America’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. As the epidemic spread, U.S. Africa Command stood up a base of operations in Liberia to coordinate the efforts of various NGOs and government agencies. Some 3,000 U.S. troops took part in the mission: Army and Navy units erected treatment facilities; Air Force planes transported thousands of people and thousands of tons of cargo; Marines provided enabling assistance in Senegal. No other nation could have carried out such a feat, and no nation was billed for what America’s military did.

This is what a great and good nation does. Americans aren’t so naïve as to expect gratitude for such generosity, but nor should they expect slurs and cynicism from the bureaucrats who roam the halls of the UN. Those slurs help explain the sentiment the American people and many of their elected representatives have about foreign aid.

Greater Good

Perhaps nothing in the federal budget is more vilified and less appreciated than foreign aid. The reason: foreign aid has no well-heeled domestic interest group to defend it; it has little to show for when it comes to immediate, tangible benefits; and by definition, it takes finite federal resources away from America and diverts them overseas. So, it’s no surprise that foreign aid has long been a political punching bag.

What may be a surprise is that both Obama (the self-described “citizen of the world”) and Trump (the “America first” nationalist) have taken aim at foreign-aid programs. And the American people have, by and large, shrugged.

In early 2018, the always-transactional Trump called on Congress “to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars…only go to America’s friends.” He returned to that same theme in his UN address in September 2018 Trump, noting that America is “the largest giver in the world, by far, of foreign aid. But few give anything to us. That is why we are taking a hard look at U.S. foreign assistance…We will examine what is working, what is not working, and whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart. Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.”

The Trump administration has proposed cuts of between 28 percent and 37 percent of the State Department and USAID budgets; a 17-percent cut in the PEPFAR program, which combats AIDS; a 13-percent cut in development assistance for Africa; cuts to USAID programs that fund agriculture, water and sanitation projects; and cuts in the U.S. contribution to UN peacekeeping.

In 2017, when Trump unveiled many of these cuts, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney explained, “We are going to propose to spend that money here.” In 2018, when Iraq gathered partner nations to begin a post-ISIS rebuilding process expected to cost $100 billion, the U.S. pledged nothing. This is in keeping with Trump’s campaign promise that “the era of nation-building will be ended”—and with Obama’s “nation-building here at home” mantra.

Indeed, Obama, like Trump, proposed—and in some cases implemented—significant cuts to foreign-aid programs. Obama’s 2012 budget blueprint called for a 6.7-percent cut in U.S. diplomacy and development programs; a 20-percent cut to the African Development and Inter-American Foundations; and a 7-percent cut in funding for international organizations and peacekeeping. His 2014 budget proposed a 9-percent cut in foreign assistance for the Middle East/North Africa. From 2010 to 2013, U.S. democracy-assistance funding for Africa was cut by almost 20 percent. Between 2010 and 2015, democracy and governance funding for the Middle East was cut 21.6 percent. Between 2010 and 2015, USAID’s Global Health Program was “phased out” in 23 countries, and agriculture-support programs were eliminated in 25 countries.

Yes, foreign aid represents tens of billions of dollars in federal spending. In an era marked by serious structural threats to America’s fiscal health, making cuts to federal outlays makes sense. However, both Trump and Obama have added massively to the national debt, making their eagerness to cut foreign aid a striking anomaly to an overall pattern of big spending.

And yes, Congress reversed some of the foreign-aid cuts proposed by the White House in recent years. But that’s beside the point. Foreign aid as a share of GDP and federal spending is lower today than it was a decade ago—and far below where it was between the 1950s and early 1970s.

This “downward trend,” as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) calls it, is only “sporadically interrupted” as a result of unexpected events and/or short-term initiatives. CRS cites the creation of the Alliance for Progress for Latin America in the 1960s, the Israel-Egypt peace process in the late 1970s, and the creation of PEPFAR, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (see pages 18-21 here), and other development programs launched soon after 9/11. (The recently-passed BUILD Act, in a sense, pluses up certain elements of President George W. Bush’s Millennium Challenge Corporation, especially those elements focused on civil-society promotion and market-based solutions to the economic problems that hinder emerging and developing countries. The BUILD Act, which Trump signed into law in early October of this year, aims to pursue poverty reduction and development for “countries in transition” through public-private partnerships and investment efforts that strengthen civic institutions, promote competition, provide for accountability and transparency, and offer “a robust alternative to state-directed investments by authoritarian governments.”)

The “downward trend” in foreign-aid spending by the U.S. government is not a function of the American people losing interest in foreign aid; after all, it has never been popular. More likely, it’s a function of presidents no longer defending foreign aid, explaining it or connecting it to the national interest.

Precisely because foreign aid seldom delivers immediate payoffs, because it lacks a powerful advocacy group, because it is often shipped to friendless peoples in faraway places, the process of developing and deploying foreign aid depends on presidential leadership.

As Truman and Eisenhower explained to the American people, foreign aid offers a path to a better world—which is undeniably in America’s interests—and sometimes simply a path to survival.

Consider the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), both launched by Bush 43.

In 2003, Bush 43 reported that 30 million Africans suffered with AIDS, including 3 million children. Yet only 50,000 people on that forgotten continent were receiving needed treatment. In response, he proposed “a work of mercy beyond all current international efforts to help the people of Africa.” Today, PEPFAR supports life-saving treatment for 11.5 million people, has prevented some 2 million infants from being born with HIV, and provides treatment for nearly 1.1 million children and critical care for 6.2 million orphans.

Launched in 2005, PMI is credited with protecting 30 million people from Africa’s deadliest killer—mosquitoes—by distributing bed nets and medicine. Thanks in large part to PMI, 6.8 million malaria deaths have been averted; malaria-mortality has been reduced by 48 percent; and there has been a 37-percent decline in malaria cases.

Elsewhere, USAID built or rebuilt 2,943 schools in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. From 2006 to 2012, the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration helped 936,000 Iraqis return to their homes. Since 2014, the U.S. has delivered $1.725 billion in humanitarian aid to Iraq. USAID has helped build 16,000 schools and train 154,000 teachers in Afghanistan, enabling 9.2 million Afghan kids to attend school—up from 900,000 in 2002. Forty percent of those kids are girls—up from zero percent in 2002.

USAID has led a worldwide partnership that has “helped to vaccinate 500 million children and save 7 million lives since 2001.” In the past decade, USAID delivered safe drinking water, sanitation and water solutions for sustainable agriculture to more than 15 million people.

America does these things for its own good and for the greater good. Like McKinley and Hoover, we must remember or perhaps relearn that humanitarian interventions and other forms of foreign aid serve as a reflection of our ideals. And like Truman and Eisenhower, we must recognize that foreign aid promotes our interests.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was once asked why Israel—a tiny country of 8.5 million people, with a GDP of just $317 billion—would send humanitarian aid and relief teams around the world. His response was at once surprising and yet perfectly fitting: “Because we’re a light unto the nations,” he explained. “People say,” he went on, “What is it that you get out of it? And the answer is we’re not getting out of it anything; we’re fulfilling our deepest values.

Say what you will about Netanyahu—like all politicians, like all people, he has his flaws—but that’s not a bad way to think of foreign aid and humanitarian assistance.

If a tiny nation like Israel feels called to help those in need—despite its relatively limited resources, limited reach and limited global interests—why wouldn’t the United States recognize the moral and geopolitical need to help neighbors in need out of its abundance?

“Abundance” is the operative word. At nearly $20 trillion, America’s GDP is enormous. How enormous? America represents 24.5 percent of global GDP. California’s economy alone is the sixth-largest on earth.  The federal government literally wastes $124.7 billion on improper payments annually—more than the entire GDP of Kuwait.

None of this is to suggest that presidents should put the interests and needs of other nations ahead of U.S. interests. However, helping nations in need often serves America’s most important interests while burnishing America’s highest ideals.

It pays to recall that the Marshall Plan prevented Western Europe from sliding into the prison yard of communism, created a massive market for U.S. goods and services, and transformed Europe from an incubator of world wars into a partnership of peace and prosperity.

The Berlin Airlift not only rescued a city from starvation and tyranny, but also dealt a blow to Stalin.

Those 450-plus Cold War-era airlifts and relief operations ensured that foreign governments would “be receptive to Americans politically, economically and militarily,” as an Air Force analysis points out.

Getting Japan back on its feet after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami helped an ally return to the important work of regional deterrence.

Assisting the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 sent “a signal to all of Southeast Asia, to Asia, that the U.S. is serious about its presence.”

America’s response to the Ebola outbreak stabilized the region, prevented the killer virus from spreading into Europe and the Americas, and smothered a global panic.

Real schools with real textbooks and real teachers are an antidote to the lies spewed by extremist madrassas. Likewise, providing medicine and clean water to the friendless, forgotten corners of Africa serves as an inoculation against jihadism. “Societies mired in disease breed hopelessness and despair,” as Bush 43 recently observed, in an echo of Truman’s reference to the seeds of totalitarianism, “leaving people ripe for recruitment by extremists.” Moreover, these forms of foreign aid counter the jihadist narrative that America is oblivious and selfish.

In short, foreign aid is an example of enlightened self-interest. But don’t take my word for it.

Eisenhower, the no-nonsense general of generals, saw foreign assistance as “an investment in our present safety, in our future strength and growth, and in the growth of freedom throughout the world.”

In 2013, responding to reports that aid and diplomatic programs were on the chopping block, then-General James Mattis bluntly warned Congress: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

A group of 120 retired flag officers recently signed an open letter arguing that “The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

Countering Trump’s suggestion that “foreign-assistance dollars…only go to America’s friends,” Admiral James Stavridis and General Anthony Zinni add, “Foreign aid is not a reward for good behavior. It is a critical tool to advance American interests around the world and address the drivers of conflict and instability.”

The generals and admirals know something that too many politicians never take the time to consider: A foreign policy defined purely by self-interest—by zero-sum transactions, by pennywise cuts and poll-tested applause lines, by soothing promises to focus on nation-building at home and put America first—has the effect of undermining America’s interests.

How can this be? The liberal international order America began building after World War II didn’t emerge by accident and doesn’t endure by magic. It depends on Americans and others blessed to live in peace and prosperity using their wealth and wherewithal to enforce international norms of behavior, deter aggressive states, and, yes, help neighbors in need. Foreign aid and humanitarian assistance serve as lubricants for this liberal order—an order that benefits America more than any other nation.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose.  A version of this essay appeared in Providence