During the last 40 years, our main thrust in foreign affairs seems to have been to shower money on all the dictators, human rights abusers and power-hungry autocrats the world over. I guess we did this in the hope we could get their oil and influence them to be a little more democratic.
It’s estimated that our foreign aid budget is a little north of $50 billion going to 25 countries. That breaks down to about $18 billion in military assistance, another $17 billion in economic aid and about $14 billion through USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The most substantial part of our foreign relations bribery goes to Israel and Egypt who split up almost $5 billion between them.
Not hard to see how little we’ve accomplished, except to make the tyrants bigger bullies.
Wonder why it has never occurred to our Washington elites, be it Democrat or Republican, that we might accomplish more by providing money and counsel to build schools and better educational systems, as well as more effective economic aid. Maybe Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, ought to have been the Secretary of State.
In a recent book called “Mission Failure: American and the World in the Post-Cold War Era,” by John Hopkins’ Foreign Policy Professor Michael Mandelbaum, Mandelbaum argues that the last two decades of U.S. foreign policy were an aberration, an era when America became so overwhelmingly more powerful than any rival that it got geopolitically drunk and decided that it didn’t just want to be a cop on the beat protecting our nation, but also a social worker, architect and carpenter doing nation-building abroad.
It was all done with the best of intentions, and in some cases did save precious lives. But none of the efforts achieved the kind of self-sustaining democratizing order we wanted, which is why neither the last two presidents nor the current one wants to be doing any more of that—if they can avoid it.
Beginning with the 1991 decision by the first Bush admin to intervene in northern Iraq and create a no-fly zone to protect the Iraqi Kurds from their country’s genocidal leader, Saddam Hussein, “the principal international initiatives of the United States” for the next two decades “concerned the internal politics and economics rather than the external behavior of other countries,” writes Mandelbaum.
“The main focus of American foreign policy shifted from war to governance, from what other governments did beyond their borders to what they did and how they were organized within them,” writes Mandelbaum, referring to U.S. operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and toward Chinese human rights policy, Russian democratization policy, NATO expansion and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“The United States after the Cold War…became the equivalent of a very wealthy person, the multibillionaire among nations,” he argues. “It left the realm of necessity that it had inhabited during the Cold War and entered the world of choice. It chose to spend some of its vast reserves of power on the geopolitical equivalent of luxury items; the remaking of other countries.”
In each case, “the United States sought to make the internal governance of the countries with which it became entangled more like its own democratic, constitutional order and those of its Western allies,” Mandelbaum adds. “In the Cold War, the United States aimed at containment; in the post-Cold War, the thrust was transformation. The Cold War involved the defense of the West; post-Cold War foreign policy aspired to the political and ideological extension of the West.”
“These missions,” he notes, all aimed “to convert not simply individuals but entire countries,” and they had one other thing in common: “They all failed.”
Don’t get him wrong, Mandelbaum says. The U.S. beat back some very bad actors in Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and later in Libya. “The military missions that the United States undertook succeeded. It was the political missions that followed, the efforts to transform the politics of the places where American arms prevailed, that failed.”
But what if we’re now in a post-imperial, post-colonial and post-authoritarian age? The kings, colonels and dictators of old did not have to deal with amplified citizens deeply connected to one another and the world with smartphones. The old autocrats also had vast oil resources or aid from superpowers in the Cold War to buy off their people. What if they now have bulging populations, dwindling oil revenues and can’t buy off their people or shut them up?
The only option is more consensual government and social contracts among equal citizens. But that gets us back to Mandelbaum’s argument: What if it’s up to them and they’re not up to it—and the result is growing disorder and more and more of their people fleeing to the world of order in Europe or North America?
Then there’s the United Nations. We give them $2 billion in dues and another $5.7 billion in voluntary payments to finance UN programs and funds. What we get is a platform for nations who vocally oppose our American values of democracy, justice, free enterprise, privacy and property rights.
According to the Democrats, George Bush was a cowboy who conducted our foreign relations as an ego-powered bully who alienated the world and cast the U.S. in a poor light. His naïve intention to democratize Iraq was costly and ineffective.
Along comes St. Obama who promises to embrace the world’s friends and foes and recast America’s image throughout Europe and the Middle East. His reign on the global stage is quite over, but it doesn’t appear he’s had any more success in restructuring our image or accomplishing anything long-standing than Bush.
Certainly, what we’re doing now is helping create an image that we are weak and indecisive. Neither the Bush nor the Obama approach has made the world like us any better. Maybe we shouldn’t care.
Our current president, Donald Trump, came into office with a dedicated position to balance trade inequities around the world, but no agenda in the foreign affairs arena. He has vigorously pursued that posture and repaired the rupture in foreign affairs along the way.
His predecessors have allowed the trade imbalances to grow and he is determined to correct that problem.
The bottom line is we very much need new thinking and a new approach to what we spend on Foreign Relations.
We should start by making it clear that governments are free to choose any path they desire, but we will only support those who agree that the countries that thrive today: 1) educate their people up to the most modern standards; 2) empower their women; 3) embrace religious pluralism; 4) have multiple parties, regular elections and a free press; 5) maintain their treaty commitments; and 6) control their violent extremists with security forces governed by the rule of law. That’s what we think is “the answer,” and our race to the top will fund schools and programs that advance those principles.