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A Republic, if we can keep it

Part IX: Foreign Aid

Flag outside a building

The U.S. Agency of International Development flag flies outside the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

J. David Ake/Getty Images

Breslin is the Joseph C. Palamountain Jr. Chair of Political Science at Skidmore College and author of “A Constitution for the Living: Imagining How Five Generations of Americans Would Rewrite the Nation’s Fundamental Law.”

This is the latest in a series to assist American citizens on the bumpy road ahead this election year. By highlighting components, principles and stories of the Constitution, Breslin hopes to remind us that the American political experiment remains, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, the “most interesting in the world.”

Americans are justly proud of the liberal democracy they’ve erected. To be sure, the build hasn’t always been effortless. We’ve faltered spectacularly, especially with our pervasive mistreatment of minoritized groups. We’ve oppressed women, gays, lesbians, immigrants, Jews, Muslims – practically anyone who isn’t Christian, heterosexual, socioeconomically secure and male. And then there’s race. The legacy of slavery and the vestiges of Native American removal policies will forever tarnish this country’s eminence. There can never be an excuse for the truth that a large swath of Americans has forsaken, and continues to forsake, our marginalized sisters and brothers.

And yet with all that said, with all the cautions and caveats about our notorious past, the country has mostly delivered on its lofty promises. There is no shame in shouting the chorus of liberty, democracy, popular sovereignty and equality from the American rafters.

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That is why we should all be puzzled by the growing discord over foreign aid.


Traditionally, foreign aid has three intersecting purposes: 1) It has a diplomatic purpose, namely to influence decision making abroad; 2) it has a humanitarian purpose, aimed at addressing issues of desperate need and severe poverty; and 3) it has a marketing purpose — to spread the gospel of democracy and freedom to the far reaches of the globe. All three are meant to stabilize a volatile and unpredictable world. All three are intended to further America’s national interests.

U.S. support for foreign nations boasts a long and uneven history; indeed, it dates back to the early days of the republic. Though often self-serving and almost always accompanied by a heavy hand, America’s initial investments abroad were intended to promulgate the principles of the American Revolution beyond our borders. From Congress’ 1812 decision to appropriate $50,000 for relief to earthquake-torn Venezuela to the Monroe Doctrine a decade later, political officials saw the expansion of European colonialism as a threat to the American ideal of democratic self-rule. Not in our backyard, John Quincy Adams, the architect of the Monroe Doctrine, announced. Most European nations were ruled by monarchies and we have been burned by one, he argued. Never again.

Government involvement in the affairs of foreign capitals represents just one chapter of the tale. Privately funded humanitarian efforts blossomed in the early 19th century as well. When the Greeks sought independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s, American citizens mobilized with their wallets. Less than a generation later, we rallied to the aid of the Irish during the massive 1845 potato famine. Government took the primary lead again in the 20th century with the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, the “decade of development” under JFK and LBJ, and the “Food for Peace” program, an initiative that began during the Eisenhower administration and has continually provided famine relief around the world for 70 years.

Foreign aid is in our blood. It is part of America’s identity. And, yes, it always comes at a price. Leaders in Washington dangle the dollar in front of foreign leaders in order to influence, persuade and force specific outcomes. But that aid has saved countless lives and buttressed dozens of fragile democracies. Today, it is making a real difference in places like the Horn of Africa, Uganda and Afghanistan to name just a few.

Of course, humanitarian aid is one thing; military aid is something altogether different. Opposition voices are mainly focused on America’s support for Ukraine and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Israel. These voices are smart, they are informed and they are passionate. I respectfully disagree with most of them.

If we believe, as I think we should, that Vladimir Putin is singularly focused on imposing his version of authoritarianism on Ukraine — with sham elections, corruption, cronyism, discrimination, repression, intolerance for dissent, information manipulation and so on — don’t we have a moral responsibility to intervene? Have we forgotten that it was right to claim our independence from a despot 248 years ago and that the people of Ukraine are just trying to do the same? Have we forgotten that we would have lost the Revolutionary War, and remained a British colony, without the help of France, and that the people of Ukraine are asking us to be their French? Have we overlooked the fact that the Dutch and Spainiards chipped in with money and military assistance as well?

Israel is more complicated. Peace in the region is far beyond the horizon right now, and, for that, Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition bears some significant responsibility. And yet Hamas’s Oct. 7, 2023, brutality — with 1,200 innocent people slaughtered and countless displays of savage cruelty — was an appalling, inhuman terrorist act that warranted a ferocious Israeli response. That is why American aid is so crucial. The only liberal democracy in the region, Israel has a right to defend its sovereign territory, to fight back when terrorized. It cannot do so effectively without American military assistance. We should not turn our back on a friend on a lonely island surrounded by a sea of illiberalism. But just the same, America’s obligation in the region cannot end there. We also have an ethical responsibility to ramp up humanitarian assistance — seriously ramp up humanitarian assistance — to all Palestinians. And we have an equally forceful imperative to do everything possible to realize a peaceful and lasting solution to this maddening conflict. Everything.

In a recent study, Americans greatly overestimated the amount of foreign aid we distribute. They pegged foreign spending at a whopping “25% of the federal budget” when the actual amount is closer to “1%.” That misperception is part of the story; it provides one explanation for the increasing frustration felt by many. Assistance to foreign regimes is not a major component of America’s governmental outlay, but it is a major part of our mission. Sponsoring democracy efforts overseas is good for America and it’s good for the world. Done ethically, aid to others can be the difference between tyranny and freedom, and between death and life.

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