Cut Foreign Aid? Let Them Tell That To The Marines!
Ten weeks after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt rallied a still-reeling American public with a patriotic radio address on Washington’s Birthday. Furious that U.S. military forces had been mocked by the Axis powers as “weaklings” and “playboys,” Roosevelt famously shot back: “Let them tell that to the Marines!”
Besides being an interesting tidbit from history, a version of that message should be considered as part of the foreign aid policy debate in Washington today. Why? On this side of the Atlantic, as in Europe, domestic budget pressures will lead to proposals to cut foreign development assistance – education improvements, more democratic governance systems, agricultural productivity, women’s rights – in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But, a recent poll of U.S. military officers suggests the important link for all TransAtlantic nations between that foreign aid and national security, and illustrates how well military officers themselves understand the correlation. In late September, the U.S Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC) announced the results of a most unique and timely bit of research. USGLC hired several well-known polling companies to conduct a survey of U.S. military personnel, on the topic of foreign aid, in which 606 current and retired officers participated. The finding from this unusual survey? A large majority of military officers say that non-military tools such as diplomacy and foreign aid are important to achieving America’s national security objectives. One specific question from the survey (available at www.usglc.org) was: “In thinking about how the United States achieves its national security objectives, how important do you believe non-military tools such as diplomacy, food assistance, and support for health, education, and economic development programs are?” Forty percent of the military respondents answered “fairly important,” and 43% answered “very important.” In other words, the military officers who see first-hand the relationship between investing in human beings and national security – not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but across the developing world, from Mindanao to Mali – strongly support efforts like the U.S. Government’s Development Assistance Program at USAID.
Now, all TransAtlantic nations face significant policy decisions in a budget constrained environment, and seeking efficiencies in the delivery of foreign aid, including better donor coordination at the country level, should be a priority. In Washington, the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform has proposed a slowing of the growth rate in U.S. foreign aid by 10% between now and 2015, resulting in a projected savings of $4.6 billion, a reasonable proposal. Setting appropriate foreign aid budget levels was one of many topics discussed by European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs at a recent German Marshall Fund colloquy titled How to Make Development Sustainable in a Time of Fiscal Austerity. Many foreign aid advocates argue that budget pressures may actually impel better coordination among TransAtlantic foreign aid donors at the country-level, a long cherished goal that, while appealing in theory, has proved elusive in practice. Reasonable proposals for trimming foreign aid should be part of the budget policy debate in Europe and North America. But, before considering radical cuts in overseas development assistance, parliamentarians should review the recent poll of U.S. military officers. Ignoring the long-term national security implications of foreign aid would be both bad foreign policy and, considering the huge costs of peacekeeping ventures, unsound fiscal policy. For those parliamentarians who might consider dramatic cuts in foreign aid as a politically less painful pathway to balanced budgets, we suggest: “Let them tell that to the Marines,” and the soldiers, airmen, and sailors who participated in the USGLC survey. Those individuals understand all too well that an disengagement from enhancing human progress in poor countries is something for which military personnel personally, and the nation as a whole, may pay a heavy price.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.