1. Republicans hate foreign aid.
Former congressman Tom Delay (R-Tex.) once noted that it was difficult for lawmakers to explain to their constituents why they were more interested in helping Ghana than Grandma. Yet every Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower has been a staunch advocate for foreign aid programs.
In signing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, Gerald Ford resisted congressional restrictions on food aid. Ronald Reagan launched the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983 to help “foster the infrastructure of democracy — the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities” around the globe, as he put it in a speech before the British Parliament. Declaring that America needed to lead the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic, George W. Bush established the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in 2003. According to the Congressional Research Service, this fund, along with money for Iraq reconstruction, was part of the largest appropriation for foreign aid in three decades. When it came to opening the nation’s wallet to the world, these conservative commanders in chief weren’t very conservative.
“U.S. assistance is essential to express and achieve our national goals in the international community — a world order of peace and justice.” Sound like Obama? Richard Nixon said it in 1969.
2. Foreign aid is a budget buster.
In poll after poll, Americans overwhelmingly say they believe that foreign aid makes up a larger portion of the federal budget than defense spending, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, or spending on roads and other infrastructure. In a November World Public Opinion poll, the average American believed that a whopping 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. The average respondent also thought that the appropriate level of foreign aid would be about 10 percent of the budget — 10 times the current level.
Compared with our military and entitlement budgets, this is loose change. Since the 1970s, aid spending has hovered around 1 percent of the federal budget. International assistance programs were close to 5 percent of the budget under Lyndon B. Johnson during the war in Vietnam, but have dropped since.
3. We give aid so countries will do as we say.
Ken Adelman, Reagan’s U.N. ambassador, was shocked when he showed up at the United Nations in 1981 to find that countries receiving U.S. development assistance didn’t always support Washington. As Adelman put it in a recent Foreign Policy article: “Did all that money buy America any love?”
But foreign aid is not designed to make countries like us. The United States wants stable democratic partners that are reliable allies in the long run. Aid builds these relationships, even when the countries we help don’t support us in the short run. For example, the Reagan administration didn’t approve when Costa Rica inserted itself into multiple conflicts raging in Central America during the 1980s. But U.S. assistance to Costa Rica helped that nation become a champion of democracy and human rights as well as of regional trade agreements. Similarly, the United States and India were badly estranged at different points during the Cold War, but U.S. assistance to India helped spark the “green revolution” that prevented massive famine in the late 1960s. Today, India is one of America’s most important allies in Asia.