What next for foreign assistance?

What next for foreign assistance?
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It has become a bad word: foreign assistance. The antithesis of “America First.” As a policy prescription, its extreme associations have become engrained in our political lexicon: boots on the ground, regime change, nation-building. When the latter, in particular, is spoken of in a political context today, it elicits a response from domestic audiences akin to that of “free trade.” Reflecting understandable popular anxiety over recent foreign entanglements, not surprisingly, candidates and elected officials are quick to steer clear. 

In 2000, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush declared his opposition to “nation-building missions.” But that was before 9/11. A decade later, President Obama confidently stated, “It is time to focus on nation building here at home.” Then the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria reared its head. When President Trump announced on the campaign trail last year a “swift and decisive end” to such foreign forays, he was merely echoing longstanding, bipartisan sentiment. The question, as before, is whether the rest of the world will cooperate.


Depending on one’s perspective, U.S. foreign assistance encompasses anything from humanitarian missions in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean to counterterrorism elsewhere. No region of the world, however, has come to symbolize for the majority of Americans the excesses and unintended consequences of U.S. foreign assistance policies in recent memory more than the Middle East. 

For many, a decade of sacrifice and investment in the Middle East after 9/11 came at the expense of very real priorities at home, engendering widespread discontent at the perceived misdirection of national resources both human and material. Given the electorate’s mood, the Obama administration’s avowed policy of retreat from what it viewed as the Middle East quagmire was not unwelcomed by the public; though at what cost is likely to be debated for some time to come.

As a new U.S. administration takes shape, it will inherit both a public that has been partly desensitized to the vital U.S. role in maintaining global order in the post-World War II era and parts of the world that are seemingly in perpetual chaos. To effectively address potential policy dilemmas, our new leadership may need to confront what appeared to be an uncomfortable truth for the last administration: that what happens outside America’s borders does, in fact, matter. And what happens outside our borders includes what happens inside others’. 

As members of our new president’s national security team are keenly aware, a foreign policy agenda aimed at diminishing threats to U.S. security, while safeguarding prosperity at home, will ultimately prove a game of whack-a-mole if parts of the globe continue to fester in poor governance, corruption, and diminishing access for millions to education, jobs, energy, water and food. It may be easier to grasp irreconcilable civilizational disputes as the cause of much of the instability in the headlines, but quality-of-life deficits, including authoritarian misrule, have long been a significant destabilizing agent across the globe.

Over half a century ago, President Truman recognized the risks inherent in the failure of states, having borne witness to fascism’s rise from the European rubble of World War I, of which he himself was a veteran. Truman’s dedication of American leadership, manpower and resources in response kept much of Europe, and the world, from falling prey to the 20th century’s other great “ism” in the decades that followed. 

As the hard-won gains of the post-WWII order come under increasing strain today, new threats and new “isms” have emerged that threaten our prosperity. To confront them, unfortunately, recent experience has shown that there is still no substitute for the demonstrated wisdom of our 33rd president and successive American presidents thereafter. 

The fact remains that American leadership in the realm of diplomacy, deterrence and, yes, development — or foreign assistance — is as vital to global prosperity and stability in 2017 as it was in 1948. We may wish this were not the case, but the experiment to prove otherwise these past eight years did not prove successful; on the contrary. Nor did it place American interests where all agree they should be, and that is first.

The authors were, respectively, senior adviser and deputy assistant secretary in the Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the administration of George W. Bush.

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