THERE's a new mood in America. Or, more accurately, a long
discredited delusion arisen from the graveyard of bad ideas. In the
wake of our triumph in the cold war, Americans are being told we
can no longer afford a leading role abroad but must concentrate on
problems at home.
Portraying themselves as champions of the American taxpayer,
some proponents of this new isolationism have called for sharp
reductions in American foreign assistance. Their mesmerizing but
misguided message has picked up support at a time of recession. The
House of Representatives, for example, refused to pass a foreign
aid authorization bill similar to one voted for earlier this year
by over 100 votes.
Foreign aid critics use a handful of faulty arguments. They say
foreign aid is a giant giveaway. It's time, say nay-sayers, to end
the gravy train.
This is nonsense. There may be some unproductive spending. But
the bulk of United States assistance to friends around the world is
distributed efficiently and honestly. Far from being a giveaway,
foreign aid is a tangible expression of American idealism, and it
contributes to vital US interests. It goes for humanitarian needs
and US security purposes. It plays a role in serving American
commercial interests. It helps fledgling democracies. It goes to
causes as diverse as narcotics control, peacekeeping, and
A frequently lodged complaint is that we can't afford foreign
aid. The US, the critics say, has a national debt of $3.6 trillion.
The deficit for this year alone is $321 billion. We can't spend
money we don't have.
Unfortunately for the isolationists, the notion that the
wealthiest nation in the world cannot afford a foreign aid program
costing $60 per American does not stand up. Foreign aid ($15.1
billion in 1991) is 1.2 percent of the federal budget. Even if we
eliminated aid altogether (and no one seriously calls for so
drastic a step), the budget deficit would still total $300 billion.
We now spend about one-quarter of 1 percent of our GNP on
foreign aid. Sixteen of the world's 18 leading industrial countries
do better. Americans spend more every year on cosmetics than on
foreign aid. We spend twice as much on beer, and three times as
much on tobacco. The idea that we can't afford foreign aid is only
slightly more respectable than saying we'd prefer to spend our
money in other areas.
In addition, 70 percent of the money appropriated for foreign
aid is actually spent on goods and services in the US, which are
then shipped overseas, often on American ships. …