Why foreign aid is just as powerful as diplomacy and defense

Since the Bush administration created the doctrine of the three D’s — Defense, Diplomacy and Development — after 9/11, diplomacy and development have often been conflated as part of policy-makers arsenal of soft power tools. Confusing the two very distinct, but equally important, disciplines does a disservice to both and has often compromised their effectiveness. 

Because diplomats and soldiers sometimes use development assistance to achieve their objectives, they often see aid programs as instrumental rather than ends in themselves. While aid programs should be coordinated with U.S. diplomacy and defense strategies, they should not be subordinated to them. Otherwise, the development challenges that pose threats to both the United States and developing countries will go unaddressed.  

{mosads}This idea is the first principle in The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network’s Guiding Principles for Effective Assistance. I, along with over 120 individuals and organizations, endorsed these illustrative principles, which include maintaining development and diplomacy as distinct mutually reinforcing pillars of American foreign policy.


The robustness of U.S. foreign assistance has historically been directly related to the threats facing the United States abroad: The more apparent and dangerous the threat, the larger and more expansive our aid programs.

Whether it was the communist threat during the Cold War, radical Islamist extremist groups or the darker side of globalization — human traffickers, drug cartels, illicit arms markets and organized crime — aid has been seen as part of the toolbox used by presidents and secretaries of state to protect America from the chaos in the world. 

During the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. foreign assistance was slashed and nearly eliminated because policymakers thought no threats were on the horizon. Then 9/11 changed history and the aid program was infused with new funding and new staff.

The threats we face today are no mystery. 

Famines now rage in four countries — all in conflict areas, which will inevitably have political consequences. The migration crisis in Europe has been driven by 65 million forcibly displaced people, the largest number of since World War II, and is pushing European politics toward isolationist, ultra-nationalist parties. 

Experts suggest that the Ebola and Zika outbreaks are a prelude to an inevitable pandemic, which will have massive economic and humanitarian repercussions. 

High volatility in food prices, which partially drove the Arab uprisings across the Mideast and North Africa, may become more severe, particularly if trade protectionism continues to spread across the globe.

Poor countries will not be able to feed their burgeoning populations without a free trading system. USAID estimates the poorest and most unstable countries will be hard-pressed to achieve food security without assistance programs or imports, which they cannot afford. This will lead to more chaos. Failing states including South Sudan, Venezuela, Yemen and Syria are creating new homes for the darker side of globalization.

Most policymakers know these threats exist, but it is the events and trends we do not understand that may be the most dangerous. These “Black Swan” events are less likely and unanticipated, but dramatically alter the course of history.

No one anticipated the most consequential events of the last 100 years: World War I which killed 20 million people and ended three empires; the 1918 Great Influenza which killed 5 percent of the world population in one year and paralyzed American society; collapse of the Soviet Union; and al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks.  

USAID and our foreign assistance programs have played a critical role in addressing economic crisis, disease, state collapse and famine of the 21st century. They will continue to be effective only if they are allowed some independence to focus on what works and avoid what does not work. The relationship between development, diplomacy and defense is one of mutually beneficial partnership.  

When aid is treated as instrumental and subordinated to diplomacy and defense, the opposite often happens: policy makers misallocate money to programs aid officers know will fail, while ignoring programs that have a history of success. Only when development is treated as equal to diplomacy and defense will its great potential be fully realized and the American people protected. 

Andrew SNatsios is Professor of the Practice at the George H. W. Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University, Director of the Scowcroft Institute, and former Administrator of USAID. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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