Emma Welch is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. A version of this post originally appeared on Politics, Power, and Preventive Action, a Council on Foreign Relations blog.
Yesterday, the Obama administration released its highly anticipated $3.8 trillion budget proposal for fiscal year 2013, and will begin the process of obtaining Congressional approval for how to allocate and disperse government funds, domestically and abroad. The proposal calls for $43.4 billion for the core budget of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, with an additional $8.2 billion for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. A 1.6 percent increase overall from last year’s budget (essentially a cost-of-living adjustment), it includes a new Middle East and North Africa Fund to incentivize regional political and economic reform efforts offset by reduced funding to a number of commitments.
Foreign aid has a poor reputation domestically due to America’s more difficult partners, such as Pakistan and Egypt, as well as the politically sensitive—and exorbitantly expensive—nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In response to unfavorable events abroad, U.S. lawmakers have frequently threatened to reduce or cut off aid to specific countries. The argument put forth most often is that the millions and billions of foreign aid do not make a country align with and conform to U.S. national interests.
But U.S. foreign aid makes the biggest impact in its long-term efforts that do not make headline news. It provides critical resources and support to over 190 countries and international institutions to better ensure stability and encourage growth. For many countries, U.S. financial support is a critical lifeline.
Take United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations (PKOs). The United States is the largest contributor to PKOs, funding over a quarter of their overall budget and providing essential resources to UN troops on the ground. PKOs are critical to ending conflicts and keeping the peace in weak, failing, and failed states, as well as enhancing regional stability by working to prevent cross-border escalation. There are currently sixteen UN peacekeeping missions deployed on four continents, including in Darfur, Somalia, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Recent history has demonstrated that failed states can pose a significant threat to U.S. and global security through weak or ineffectual governance, porous borders, and spreading criminality.
Despite the importance of such initiatives and more, it is a sure bet that, in the current fiscal climate, foreign assistance will become the political bull’s eye of the upcoming budget battle. Some Republican presidential candidates have already taken aim at foreign aid. In a November 2011 debate, Rick Perry proposed that every country “come in at zero and make your case,” to which Newt Gingrich quickly agreed, arguing that foreign leaders should “explain to me why we need to give you a penny.” The sometimes-frontrunner Mitt Romney concurred: “I will stop sending money to any country that can take care of itself. And no foreign aid will go to countries that oppose American interests.”
Inflammatory rhetoric in Washington and on the campaign trail feeds into the existing public misperception of foreign aid and its uses. In a widely cited poll conducted by World Public Opinion in November 2010, Americans significantly overestimated how much the government spends on foreign aid. The majority guessed that 25 percent of the federal budget is allocated to foreign assistance; when asked how much should be allocated, respondents answered 10 percent.
In reality, all foreign assistance makes up merely 1 percent of the U.S. government budget. To put that in perspective, the average American pays $1,375 for defense, $845 for Medicare, $168 for transportation, and $42 for foreign aid. Even if Congress were to slash aid altogether, it would have a negligible impact on the overall budget.
Given the looming deficit and demands to trim the budget, the politically easy recourse is to scapegoat and target foreign assistance. But it shouldn’t be. Former secretary of defense Robert Gates said, “There has to be a change in attitude in the recognition of the critical role that agencies like [the] State [Department] and AID [U.S. Agency for International Development] play…for them to play the leading role that I think they need to play.” Foreign aid is the most effective and sustainable means of projecting smart power by protecting U.S. interests and promoting values. Let’s not undermine a fundamental pillar of U.S. national security to score political points.