Losing the war for hearts and minds

It is widely believed that a nation’s budget reflects its values. The new budget proposed by President Donald J. Trump reflects an introverted mind-set and represents a major shift in United States thinking on relations with the rest of the world. Congress must take a magnifying glass not just a scalpel to this budget.

From being a committed international partner for developing societies in the post-war world, the United States is now increasingly being seen as an inward-looking Fortress America. The biggest item on the President’s radar screen seems to be $8.6 billion for a border wall and enhancements in border security. Acting budget director Russell Vought told Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition on March 11 that among the major cuts, the President was seeking a cut of 23 percent in “foreign aid” in the budget of the Department of State.

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Reflecting this approach, Mr. Vought cited only two examples of the sort of wasteful spending in the U.S. foreign aid program: First, a NASA Space Camp program for youth from Pakistan and second, a cricket league in Afghanistan. The Pakistani program costs a mere $250,000 a year. It brings 25 youth and teachers to learn about space and interact with their American counterparts. Notably, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump vetoes measure ending US support for Saudi-led war in Yemen Bottom line Trump: I have not read Mueller report, 'though I have every right to do so' MORE (R-Ky.) publicly criticized this program last year as an example of wasteful spending; perhaps the White House saw cutting it as an easy way to gain his vote. The $500,000 Afghanistan cricket league program is fostering a sport that was banned by the Taliban, and the Afghan cricket team is one of the shining stars on the global cricket scene. Many Afghan children learned cricket in refugee camps in Pakistan and brought the sport back to Afghanistan. Afghans have quickly shot to the top ranks of the sport. A fledgling women’s cricket league is also on the scene. These developments reflect the autonomous rise of civil society in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

The combined cost of these two programs that Mr. Vought highlighted as wasteful is $750,000 a year, compared with the average cost of a Trump weekend trip to Mar-a-Lago coming in at $3.4 million.

These budget cuts will snuff out the hopes of many Afghan youth and break our ties with them for the foreseeable future.

If the United States wishes to build relations with the emerging youthful societies around the globe, it needs to make investments that connect it with civil societies rather than relying on military assistance or kinetic operations.

In my own recent experience as Director of the South Asia Program at the Atlantic Council from 2009 to 2014, one of our proudest achievements was an Emerging Leaders of Pakistan program that helped produce a critical mass of young leaders who were doing incredibly successful community-oriented work in their society without any external stimulus or support. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and supported by the U.S. embassy in Islamabad and private funders in Pakistan and the United States, we managed to identify these young men and women from diverse urban and rural backgrounds, representing the best and brightest of Pakistan’s youth. We brought them to learn from individuals and organizations in the United States and followed up with them inside Pakistan.

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One of the most popular events on the U.S. tour was the finale in Stanford University when former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Secretary of Defense William Perry would host them for a discussion. Most of these emerging leaders have since moved on to bigger and better ventures than the ones that drew us to them and are creating their own networks within the country as well as across borders.

The proposed Trump budget and the mindset captured by the examples of cuts cited by Mr. Vought show a short-sighted and myopic view of the role of U.S. development assistance and further relegates this once mighty purveyor of development assistance to the lower ranks of aid givers.

In 2017, for example, the United States gave $34.7 billion in official development assistance, representing only 0.18 per cent of its Gross National Income. Among the many members of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee that exceeded the U.S.’s aid flows in terms of their relative share of GNI, Sweden at 1.02 percent of GNI led the field. Others that had multiples of the U.S. aid as a proportion of GNI were Norway at 0.99 percent, the United Kingdom with .70 percent, Germany at 0.67 per cent, and France at 0.43 per cent.

If the United States wants to be seen as a global leader again, it will need to do more of what its rival China is doing. It will need to invest in the social and physical infrastructure of societies around the globe and build partnerships based on economics and trade and not solely on governmental and military ties. Such development assistance needs to be shaped by a clear long-term vision of the changing demographics of developing countries, with their youthful populations.

Helping create an enabling environment for the young majorities in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in the Middle East and Africa will lay the foundation for stability and growth and enduring relationships with the United States. As former Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump learns to love acting officials Shanahan says he's 'never favored' Boeing as acting Defense chief Trump moves to install loyalists MORE warned “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

We cannot afford that.

Shuja Nawaz was editor of “Finance & Development” quarterly of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and is now Distinguished Fellow at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council. He has just completed a new book “Misalliance” on the bitter friendship of Pakistan and the United States and the internal battle for Pakistan since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @shujanawaz.