Latest US Diplomatic Tool: Corn and Grain in Post-Cold-War Era, Politics, Not Hunger, Plays Bigger Role Indeciding Who Gets Aid

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In nuclear-armed Russia, the United States is hoping to forestall instability. With North Korea, it is struggling to avert renewed conflict. In Indonesia, it is trying to help stem unrest in the world's most populous Muslim state.

Washington is pursuing different approaches in each case to avoid a crisis with major consequences for US political, economic, and security interests.

Yet there is a common element in its strategies: huge amounts of food aid. In the post-cold-war world, grain may have become the United States' foreign-policy tool of choice. American security interests - and not the recipients' level of hunger - are becoming important criteria for dispersal of US food aid, say some experts. Take the examples cited above. Russia this month is to begin receiving 1.5 million tons of US wheat, part of a $625 million deal to ease shortages due to its fiscal crisis and poor harvests. Though the US denies a link, its massive food donations to famine-hit North Korea are widely seen as incentives to keep Pyongyang in peace talks. And US food aid worth $53 million is going to Indonesia, where poverty-fueled turmoil ignited by last year's economic problems threatens its nascent transition to democracy. Yet all this largess and the huge shipments of food the US rushes to disaster zones are deceiving. While it remains the largest international food aid donor, the world's richest nation has slashed its programs since 1992 by some two-thirds, even as chronic hunger and malnutrition soar in many parts of the globe. The exception was last year, when aid rose dramatically. But most of the increase was earmarked for Indonesia, Russia, and North Korea. Furthermore, the hike was made possible by a coincidental convergence of election-year politics, market economics, and bumper crops. With many farmers beset by huge surpluses due to historically low prices and depressed Asian sales, the Clinton administration came to the rescue with emergency purchases of the excess. Otherwise, experts say, the US might have found it hard to help Russia, North Korea, and Indonesia as well as millions of victims of a surge of natural disasters. "This was a lucky year for us," a US official says. "Surplus production in the US has masked what would have otherwise been a serious food crisis." Where the aid is going The biggest cuts in US food aid have been to nongovernmental development efforts that use food to pay workers in third world nations for building infrastructure like dams and roads. Of the 8.3 million tons of aid dispersed by Food for Peace programs in 1986, 7.3 million tons went to such initiatives. Last year, they received only 2. …