How can political leaders engage voters?

According to a new international poll, the United States is now seen as less likely to use its influence for good than it was 10 years ago. While presidential candidates have only begun to lay out their priorities for U.S. foreign policy, reaffirming positive American leadership in the world will be a crucial task for the next U.S. President. 

However, many Americans are looking inward, wary of activities abroad. How can political leaders engage voters on the crucially important and positive role that America can play in the world? What we have, and can, accomplish with international assistance is one opportunity, and it’s a worthy question for the upcoming debates.

First, though, candidates need to learn to talk about foreign aid in a new way. For years, political leaders have been promoting the aid budget as if it were an adjunct to our military prowess. In the Obama years it was “soft power” that advanced our interests. Today proponents of aid and diplomacy frequently quote former Secretary of Defense Mattis who told Congress, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Yes, foreign assistance advances America’s security interests, but its import is far greater. At its best, foreign aid projects America’s highest ideals around the world in a tangible way that changes peoples’ lives. 

When past political leaders have sought to increase international assistance, they have appealed to generosity and a sense of shared humanity as core American values. After World War II, George Marshall said of the plan to rescue Europe that took his name, “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.” George W. Bush called for a major investment to combat AIDS globally by asserting that, “in the age of medical miracles,” no one should be turned away from lifesaving HIV treatment. 

Long maligned as ineffective and a waste of taxpayer dollars (one Congressman called the Marshall Plan “operation rathole” when it was first proposed), today America’s international assistance investment can point to major successes. It represents a critical opportunity to reassert principled American leadership in the world, even as it advances our security, economic and diplomatic goals. 

There is reason, and room, to grow the aid budget where we can make major humanitarian and development gains. International assistance is now just one percent of the U.S. budget, and our country ranks 22nd in the percentage of Gross National Income committed to it. 

We need an expanded investment in international assistance that is focused on impact and that reflects the challenges of the coming decades. These include the spiraling impacts of climate change, new waves of migration, closing political space for civil society, the threat of pandemic disease, the potential for technology to promote or damage equality, and China’s expanding influence on international development and governance. 

As United Nations staff several years ago, I saw U.S. diplomats stand up in international fora and speak to the rights of marginalized groups and women. They were an influential voice for greater equity. Those experiences made me proud and helped me recognize the indispensable role America can play in advancing humanitarian values globally. Foreign assistance is a vital aspect of that leadership. America should be investing in programs overseas that catalyze productive change for societies, advance social equity and inclusion, and demonstrate near as well as long-term impact. 

Global health is a prime example of the impact we can achieve. America’s investment in fighting the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria has saved millions of lives, driving down disease rates and making whole populations healthier. Since 2000, overall life expectancy has increased by 10 years in sub-Saharan Africa. The HIV infection rate among children is down more than 70 percent since 2000.

These successes are possible because the world, often led by the U.S., invested in innovative health research that produced new tools and then focused on delivering them through programs that achieved measurable results. 

The impacts of these investments stretch far beyond health. Last year, a study from the Bipartisan Policy Center of our global AIDS program, PEPFAR, highlighted its contributions to economic and political stability as well as to saving lives. A new analysis by Georgetown University finds associations between Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria programming and stronger governance such as control of corruption, political freedoms and rule of law. 

Smart foreign aid is America at its best: advancing health, growth and democratic values while benefiting our interests at home. At a time when many politicians are seeking to articulate our defining principles, U.S. development investment overseas should be part of every presidential candidate’s foreign policy platform. 

Utilizing evidence-based approaches and closely monitoring results, we can support people in other countries to achieve better futures and help shape the world in which we must co-exist. As a small fraction of the federal budget, international assistance keeps us safer and stronger, but it can also help reaffirm America as a powerful, positive force in the world.

Chris Collins is president of Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

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