Published August 02, 2013
A healthy debate is unfolding within the Republican Party on foreign policy and national security. While the national media pretends the same debate isn’t happening on the left, Republicans are openly engaging in an internal debate from the House floor to the editorial pages of our daily newspapers.
In a time of domestic belt-tightening to reign in government deficits topping $16 trillion, many are raising a critical question: can the United States continue to afford its status as a global leader, or can it not afford to lose it.
This debate is nothing new.
Foreign aid, though less than 1% of the annual federal budget, is often a hard case to make to constituents who are rightfully worried about domestic and economic issues.
In the 2012 primary season, this debate threatened to rupture the otherwise tightly-formed foreign policy consensus up and down the GOP ticket.
Congressman Ron Paul, a long-time critic of U.S. foreign policy and intervention, was joined by Texas Governor Rick Perry and others in questioning the merits of U.S. assistance to countries like Turkey, a NATO ally since 1952, and Egypt, the long-time foothold of US support in the Islamic world.
These calls are a far cry from the foreign policy strategies of Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Bush 41. Commencing with the massive foreign aid packages under the Truman Doctrine, which enabled the global fight against Soviet influence, and continuing through the Cold War and into the modern era, foreign aid has long been a staple of the United States’ attempts to gain access to and influence with leaders in the developing world.
This money has bought America permission for military bases in every corner of the globe, unfettered access for American consumers to emerging trade markets, and remarkable influence in world affairs. As a result, America has been able to be a “shining city upon the hill,” as Reagan envisioned.
But as globalization has changed the landscape of world affairs, so too has it changed the efficacy of America’s foreign policy strategy.
China, Russia, and others are competing with American interests by offering their own style of aid to compete with ours.
There was a story that was retold around the State Department during my days in the Bush administration whereby a non-specific African country had stronger feelings and loyalties to the government of China than to America. The reason: China had provided aid for a soccer stadium, while the U.S. had only been providing food and supplies for decades.
Sadly, our years of humanitarian and military aid have been taken for granted, doing little to change how people actually feel about America – even with the worldwide phenomenon known as Barack Obama.
When we look at these problems next to the $16.7 trillion U.S. national debt, it's clear that unconditional foreign aid is no longer smart.
Though the State Department has discussed options such as better branding of food and supplies to identify American support, it is clear that our decades-long charity effort is failing to bring about the results we expected.
U.S. foreign aid must be used more strategically to achieve our national security goals. Anyone who thinks we should continue in the same manner is out of touch with the reality of a changing world.
Echoing his father’s long-time opposition to U.S. interventionism, Senator Rand Paul has voiced concerns with U.S. aid to Egypt, our drone policy, and America’s place in world affairs.
His followers brought the debate surrounding drones to the House Floor, dividing the Republican caucus.
On the other end of the spectrum is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who on several recent occasions has questioned the recent trend of fiscally conservative Republicans bucking GOP security traditions, invoking victims of 9/11 and calling it a “dangerous thought.” Christie’s call for more spending has also riled some in the GOP.
So how to proceed? The answer is somewhere in the middle. Foreign aid, a fraction of total U.S. spending and more than thirty times less than the amount we spend on military obligations every year, is a relative bargain for the foreign influence we must maintain to keep American safe and secure.
Nevertheless, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we must live within our means and that foreign aid, like domestic spending, must not go to failing or unaffordable programs.
When he established the Millennial Challenge Corporation in 2004, President George W. Bush created the first ever process to condition U.S. aid upon a country’s ability to fundamentally reform.
Bush wanted recipient governments to move towards transparent, democratic, and functional institutions before getting U.S. aid.
Today, we should go further than President Bush’s original idea by requiring a zero-based budgeting approach to foreign aid and require recipient countries to annually ask for specific assistance.
Foreign aid should not be automatic.
Countries should have to make their case every year and American officials should openly decide what, if anything, to fund.
Despite the media’s unwillingness to have a nuanced and sustained conversation, the Republican Party should continue to debate the future of America’s world standing.
Regardless of how divided the party seems now, we should continue to wrestle with these serious policy issues.
The discussion will once again be temporarily settled when the party picks its 2016 nominee, but for now, let the debate rage on.