Patrick Christy and Evan Moore are senior policy analysts at the Foreign Policy Initiative.
Much attention has focused on how looming sequestration cuts will harm national defense, but few people understand how sequestration's March 2013 onset will also hurt U.S. foreign assistance programs that advance America's security, prosperity, and global leadership. Under sequestration, spending on international affairs (a major component of which is U.S. foreign assistance) will be slashed not only by roughly 5.3 percent in fiscal year 2013, but also by as much as $50 billion over the next decade—roughly what the United States spends on diplomacy and development in a single year.
It's important to remember that America's commitment to foreign assistance reflects not only the nation's moral character, but also its strategic and economic interests.
First, foreign assistance promotes national security by helping to fight the causes of terrorism, stabilize weak states, and promote regional-level security and global stability. To take a key example, foreign assistance is playing a crucial role in America's larger struggle to combat conditions that can spawn terrorism—namely, poverty, weak institutions, and corruption—by promoting economic development, good governance, and transparency in the Middle East and South Asia.
Second, foreign assistance promotes prosperity and self reliance by encouraging economic development and private enterprise in aid-recipient countries, as well as opening and developing international markets for the United States. For example, South Korea—which was a leading benefactor of U.S. foreign assistance after having been devastated in the Korean War—is now America's seventh largest trading partner, a vibrant democracy, and a significant donor of foreign assistance.
Third, foreign assistance advances America's moral values and humanitarian interests by saving lives, fighting poverty and hunger, combating infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, promoting education, and bolstering democratic institutions. For example, President George W. Bush launched the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003 to battle the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. In conjunction with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis, PEPFAR has achieved real and objective results.
Foreign assistance—properly understood—is neither national bribery nor altruistic charity, but rather strategic investment. As Paul D. Miller, a former director for Afghanistan in the National Security Council under Presidents Bush and Obama who earlier served as an Army reservist in Afghanistan, wrote:
Foreign aid helps countries whose interests align with our own increase their capacities. The United States gives money to help select countries—not the entire world—improve specific abilities, like their ability to provide public security, defend their borders, or buy and sell goods.... Aid is hard power. It is a weapon the United States uses to strengthen allies [and partners] and, thus, ourselves.
To be clear, the goal of results-driven foreign assistance is to help America's partners become self reliant. While it is true that certain development programs faced challenges in the past, Washington has increasingly embraced new—and arguably revolutionary—reforms over the last decade to make foreign assistance even more transparent, accountable, and more effective.
Yet, despite significant reforms, foreign assistance is still frequently misunderstood. As Sen. Marco Rubio has noted, even though foreign assistance comprises roughly 1 percent of total U.S. government spending,
… there's this urban legend out there that somehow, if we just eliminated foreign aid, we'd have all the money we need to wipe out our debt. Foreign aid is very small. It's a significant number of dollars, no doubt about it, and one dollar of waste is too much. But if you wiped out all the foreign aid in the world, you wouldn't notice it in terms of the debt conversation.
However, if you completely wiped out U.S. foreign assistance, you would notice the severe and likely irreparable damage to America's security, prosperity, and global leadership.
In addition to harming U.S. diplomacy and international development, sequestration cuts will further undermine America's ability to address the challenges of the 21st century. That is because current law will slash $500 billion—in addition to the $487 billion that is already being cut by the Obama administration—from defense spending over the next decade. Indeed, Pentagon leaders have repeatedly warned that near-term budget reductions will severely restrict the military's ability to adequately protect America's economic and security interests. This will have a major impact on global security. As Marine Corps Commandant General James F. Amos recently warned in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee:
[A] fiscally driven lapse in American leadership and forward engagement will create a void in which old threats will be left unaddressed and new security challenges will find room to grow. There should be no misunderstanding…[S]equestration will have a deleterious effect on the stability of global order, the perceptions of our enemies, and the confidence of our allies.
If the United States is to remain a global leader in the 21st century, then it is critical that leaders in Washington work to sustain investments in foreign assistance, diplomacy, and national defense. As the ongoing French intervention in Mali has demonstrated, unstable territory can quickly become a safe-haven for extremist groups. The truth is that a robust and strategically-applied foreign assistance budget—in conjunction with a strong military—can bolster America's capacity to respond to critical global events. Allowing sequestration to occur, however, would undermine both America's strategic interests and its values.