30 July 2012
As Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute put it, “[Americans] are more polarized than we have been in our lifetime.”
A country split 46 percent Republican and 46 percent Democratic voters leaves a narrow 8 percent margin of swing-voters. The statistics do not fully capture how intensely the parties clash: ideological warfare has become par for the course, and as the election season draws near, politicians and pundits increasingly polarize key issues. But one issue seems to defy party lines--foreign aid.
At the 2012 U.S. Global Leadership Coalition Conference, former chair of the Democratic National Committee Terry McAuliffe predicted that this election is going to be extremely close—and that candidates will use just about any issue to gain ground. Seeking to form what McAuliffe calls their “early narrative” in the months leading up to November, the candidates will focus on the economy, the issue most pertinent to highest percentage American voters.
But as Ed Gillespie, former chair of the Republican National Committee argued, “There is a correlation between our economy and our ability for soft diplomacy abroad.” Gillespie argued that foreign affairs and national security issues are always important in presidential elections, no matter how heavily the issue of the economy weighs. Gillespie and McAuliffe, split by their respective support for Romney and Obama and their long-time loyalty to different parties, ultimately agreed that the country needs new ways to promote international trade, share American values abroad, and perhaps most importantly, to understand other countries’ values.
Speaking on a panel with Cokie Roberts of NPR and KT McFarland of Fox News, David Brooks reiterated the need for our leaders to shift their focus outside U.S. borders. Jokingly comparing today’s diplomacy to a group of people at a dinner party who all hide their indigestion, Brooks said, “We’re all locked in our own internal problems.” Until the U.S. makes a deliberate effort to see other countries’ struggles from the inside out, diplomats will have a hard time pushing agendas and, more importantly, cultivating a culture of peace.
Of course, the USGLC speakers acknowledged the challenges of soft diplomacy, including retaliation against American aid workers in hostile areas. As Roberts, who has spent ample time in Pakistan, noted, if workers were to deliver aid to Pakistan with “USAID” written across their shirts, they might as well “have a target on [their] backs.”
But Roberts also said that no matter how much the Pakistanis she met criticized America, they also expressed a deep desire to go there. Civilian-to-civilian interaction could help America ameliorate relations with states like Pakistan; when executed properly, the efforts of civilian diplomats can transcend the macrocosmic struggles between states. The panelists agreed that foreign policymakers should focus especially on women’s and children’s issues abroad; education lays the grounds for the domestic stability and international understanding that prevent military conflict. As McFarland said candidly, “It’s a lot easier, and cheaper, to buy friends than kill enemies.”
USAID and the NGO community would like to direct this movement towards soft diplomacy and, as the panelists suggested, take preventative measures that lessen the U.S.’s need for military confrontations. As Senator John Kerry remarked at the USGLC Conference, the U.S. choose a “hammer” rather than a “scalpel” in the wake of September 11th, abandoning the “slow, patient work of building free market democracies” exemplified by efforts such as the Marshall Plan. Kerry even suggested that September 11th “crystallized developments that had been brewing for some period of time” and arguably could have been checked by diplomatic efforts.
The U.S. can only fulfill this ideal of civilian diplomacy, however, through massive budget shifts. Kerry noted that an astonishing one percent of the federal budget is set aside for foreign aid—a segment that “probably buys us more than any other sector of government.” If the Senate were to increase that percentage even slightly, the U.S.’s capacity to invest in long-term international aid would grow, allowing the U.S. to ultimately “[transfer] responsibility to other donors, the private sector, and most importantly, to the host nation itself” after a period of direct aid.
Increasing foreign aid would require “right[ing] the imbalance between civilian and military institutions.” As it stands today, Kerry argued, the military ends up “pick[ing] up the slack for the things we’re failing to do in building... institutions.” Kerry, Roberts, McFarland, and Brooks called on the U.S. to draw on its immense human capital to build these institutions: Millennials, often characterized as entrepreneurial and committed to community service, are often jobless post-graduation, left with no avenue for their energy and skills. If the U.S. government increased budgets for programs abroad, whether in teaching, medicine, or community-building, this generation would be sure to take advantage of the opportunity, and to act as civilian diplomats in a world that demands such diplomacy more than ever before.
Heading into the election, Americans can look forward to renewed diplomatic efforts. As David Brooks said, “We are in a... moment of foreign policy consensus. This is a great lesson, and it’s something to be thankful for.” Republicans and Democrats, such as Terry McAuliffe and Ed Gillespie, agree that diplomatic efforts should be augmented. But the extent to which funding and institution—building make civilian diplomacy possible may depend on the administration elect, and whether or not it transforms our definition of “foreign aid.”
Photo copyright USGLC.