To Fight Terror, Increase Foreign Aid

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James M. Lindsay

February 15, 2002

George W. Bush’s administration has said from the beginning that the war on terrorism must be fought on many fronts. It is not simply a military problem. We also need to tackle the tough economic and social problems that enable terrorism to thrive.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told the World Economic Forum in New York: “Terrorism really flourishes in areas of poverty, despair and hopelessness, where people see no future. We have to show people who might move in the direction of terrorism that there is a better way.” That is why, as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice recently told a gathering of conservative activists, “President Bush and the United States of America are committed to channeling our noble energies into an effort to encourage development and education and opportunity throughout the world, including the Muslim world.”

Rice, Powell and other administration officials are exactly right. Terrorism thrives in societies that offer their people little hope?other than the personal jihad that extremist Islamic leaders champion. Brute force, while necessary to stop those who would do us harm, cannot be the sole answer in defeating the terrorism that often prospers in these situations. Foreign aid also has a vital part to play.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has not backed up its wise words with the resources needed to turn them into deeds. It has rejected a British-led effort to persuade wealthy nations to increase their total foreign aid by $50 billion annually, double what they currently give. Last week, it unveiled a budget that would give the Pentagon an additional $46 billion to spend?the largest real spending increase since the Vietnam war. The same budget increases foreign-aid spending by $300 million, or less than 1 percent of the defense-spending increase.

A well-funded military is vital to our security. But foreign aid can also provide a cheap way to protect American interests. It can help friendly states develop the law-enforcement capabilities they need to track and capture terrorists in their midst. It can be used to teach farmers to become more productive, so that fewer people will starve. It can also give people a stake in the global economy and can create common interests with us and a reason to work together. More foreign aid can also be used to counter anti-Americanism throughout much of the world.

The administration’s penny-wise thinking is even more troubling because Washington has been starving foreign-aid programs for well more than a decade. In a budget of $2.13 trillion, economic assistance amounts to just $11 billion?or about as much as we spent in 1985.

The 0.1 percent of its gross domestic product that the United States devotes to foreign aid is not only well below the 0.24 percent average for all Western countries; it is in fact at the bottom of the list, behind such countries as Greece, Luxembourg and Portugal.

America’s commitment to foreign aid is feeble even by our own historical standards. The Marshall Plan consumed as much as 3.2 percent of our gross domestic product, and we made that commitment to rebuild Europe even as we were increasing our defense spending to counter the Soviet threat. When Ronald Reagan came to office, we devoted twice as much of our gross domestic product to foreign aid as we do today.

There is good reason to believe the public would support a sizable increase in foreign-aid spending, especially if a popular Republican president were to make the case. Most Americans have a wildly inflated view of how much Washington spends on foreign aid. In one 1995 University of Maryland poll, Americans said on average that we spent 15 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid. If that were true, our foreign-aid budget would now be more than $300 billion. It shouldn’t be hard to persuade Americans to spend a tenth of that on foreign assistance today. But, for all the talk about the importance of giving people hope, the administration hasn’t tried to make the case.

Foreign aid alone will not bring us security, but neither will bigger bombs. Like the eagle on the dollar bill, which clutches an olive branch in one talon and arrows in the other, we must learn to strike the right balance between building peace and fighting wars and not sacrifice one at the expense of the other.