Foreign Aid in the Obama Administration: A Wobbly Stool
Four days after President Obama took the oath of office, his new Secretary of State stated boldly that she would welcome dissent. Well, I'm going to take Secretary Clinton at her word. Mrs. Clinton has it dead wrong in her concept of how to organize America's foreign aid system. Addressing her new State Department staff for the first time in early January, Secretary Clinton used an oft-cited simile for American foreign policy: the three-legged stool. By this she meant that a sturdy U.S. foreign policy framework, like a sturdy stool, needs three legs. These legs consist, alliteratively, of defense, diplomacy and development, or foreign aid. In this logic, our nation requires, first, a strong deterrent military force; second, an active bilateral and multilateral diplomacy; and, third, a substantial American commitment to improving poor people's lives, to address the underlying causes of conflict and terrorism, reflected in our foreign aid program. That's all well and good. This basic simile comports with the strategic thinking of many foreign policy analysts, and reflects the commitments President Obama made while still on the campaign trail. But, after that reasonable beginning, she veered off into "dead wrong" territory by stating that the State Department should be responsible for "two of the three legs:" diplomacy and development. That reflects exactly the thinking of the departed Bush Administration, which weakened the nation's foreign aid capacity during its time in Washington. And, regrettably, Mrs. Clinton's comments followed the flawed logic that led to the absorption of the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department two administrations ago, with catastrophic consequences for America's image abroad. The correct policy is to have a vibrant American foreign policy system consisting three core, complementary elements: A strong Department of Defense tasked with fighting and winning the nation's wars; a strong State Department, strengthened and active in diplomacy; and, a much strengthened and reinvigorated United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to serve as the nation's leading development tool, and address poverty and inequality before they lead to violence. It is this "three-legged stool" that will ensure that President Obama has the set of tools he needs to conduct a vigorous foreign policy. And, with Mr. Obama still not having named a leader for the U.S. Agency for International Development four months into his presidency, it is this stool that is wobbly, indeed. Mrs. Clinton, I fear, has listened too closely to the faint-hearted at the State Department who, buffeted during the Bush Administration by over-reliance on military rather than diplomatic tools, feel the need to buttress their bureaucratic position by absorbing USAID. Our nation has fine, highly skilled and dedicated diplomats, and we need many more of them. But these skilled and courageous officers know little about rebuilding war-torn societies; delivering food aid; building health clinics and schools that will last; opening economic opportunities for poor women; responding to tsunamis; increasing agricultural yields; and the thousand and one other skill sets that USAID has been providing for America for six decades, when USAID's work was critical to winning the Cold War. Naturally, diplomacy and development, as well as defense, must be coordinated, and I have every expectation that Secretary Clinton and her team can devise appropriate bureaucratic coordination mechanisms. But, it would be the height of irony if, after the Bush Administration diminished the role of USAID over the past eight years, the Obama Administration would follow that path to its reductio ad absurdum, further diminish USAID, and create a wobbly two-legged foreign policy structure. Secretary Clinton is a strong leader. She should be strong enough to review her "I'm in charge of two legs of the stool" comment, and recommend the following to President Obama: "Mr. President, we need world-class defense, diplomacy, and development implements to conduct America's foreign policy, and I promise you unparalleled diplomatic leadership. I am recommending you dramatically increase the capacity of USAID, name a prominent person to the leadership of USAID, and invite that person, the Secretary of Defense, and me to your cabinet meetings. That way, Mr. President, you will be receiving diverse, but informed, military, diplomatic, and development perspectives whenever there is a foreign policy problem. And, Mr. President, America will be stronger for it."
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.