Andrew Tisch: America can't afford to retreat from an interconnected and unstable world

As we’ve seen over the course of the presidential primary campaign, isolationism is ascendant on both the left and right. Our politicians tell us that America is getting a bad deal on trade, that allies are free riding on U.S. military might, that we’re overextended abroad and that it’s time for the U.S. to turn inward and focus on our own problems.

This all sounds good if you say it fast enough.

But in an increasingly interconnected and unstable world, America can’t afford to retreat. We need more influence overseas—not less—and we need a real strategy from our political leaders for how to reassert U.S. leadership around the world.

Unfortunately, our elected officials have budgeted fewer dollars toward meeting the global challenges we face—ISIS, Zika and Putin just to name a few. This is bad for U.S. safety and security as well as for U.S. workers and an economy which desperately needs a boost.

In the last five years, federal spending on national security has decreased by about 20 percent. While there’s no shortage of debate in Washington on military spending, there is too little debate on America’s commitment to foreign aid and assistance.

These “soft power” investments America makes to win hearts and minds and promote our values around the world, range from teaching technical skills, building health clinics and providing humanitarian aid to developing economic and trade relationships.

Most Americans have no idea how little the U.S. spends in this area, often guessing in surveys that a quarter or more of the federal budget goes to foreign assistance. The real figure is less than one percent.

Even as people overestimate the cost of foreign assistance, they underestimate its value.

In fact, the U.S. gains much more from foreign assistance from a security standpoint than we give. Our top generals are the first to admit that the military alone cannot keep us safe and that civilian investments are critical to keep our servicemen and women out of harm’s way except as a last resort. Retired four-star General James Mattis said it best to Congress: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

But foreign assistance is about a lot more than minimizing threats. It’s about seizing economic opportunities.

Consider that 11 of America’s top 15 trading partners were once recipients of U.S. foreign assistance. For example, 60 years ago, South Korea was a devastated nation trying to pick up the pieces from a bloody war. The U.S. invested $35 billion over the next several decades. Today South Korea is our sixth largest trading partner, now providing $39 billion in annual trade revenue.

The impact of this trade is felt directly on Main Street.

Today, trade supports more than 40 million jobs in the United States—or more than one in five workers. These are good jobs because export-related jobs pay 15 to 20 percent more on average than non-export related jobs.

Trade will continue to create more opportunities for U.S. workers. Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers live outside the U.S., many in emerging economies in Latin America, Africa and Asia—whose demographics will enable them to grow faster, buy more of what the U.S. makes and, equally important, improve the lives of their people.

I’ve seen up close the transformative impact of U.S. foreign assistance as part of my work with the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. Last year, I visited the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX), which was partially funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In a country where coffee exports account for 25 percent of GDP, the ECX has improved the quality and grading standards of Ethiopian coffee, provided a more robust and efficient market for Ethiopian farmers, and helped build a stronger business and investment environment for U.S. companies. So next time you sip a cup of coffee remember you’re paying a little bit less because of U.S. help.

Unfortunately, in the last six years, total federal spending on our nation’s international affairs programs – such as USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the Peace Corps – has declined by about 12 percent.

As the U.S. has abandoned its historical leadership position, other world powers—many who don’t share our values—have stepped in. Trade between China and Latin America has grown by more than 2,000 percent in the last fifteen years, influencing the political and economic developments in a region far closer to our borders than theirs.

One could defend foreign assistance on moral grounds alone. President George W. Bush’s PEPFAR program, which helped turn the tide against HIV and AIDS in Africa, has now saved more than nine million lives. This bipartisan program—continued and strengthened by the Obama administration—would be worth it even if the U.S. didn’t receive any direct benefits.

But we do. Millions of Africans are able to go to school, go to work and build businesses because we helped provide tools to fight this awful disease. In the process, they are joining and expanding a global economy that directly benefits the American people.

Whether it’s protecting health, or creating opportunity in foreign lands or providing funds to be spent in the U.S. to support overseas allies, the case for more foreign assistance and more U.S. engagement is stronger than ever before. It’s time for our current and aspiring political leaders to make that case to the American people.