Today, Senator Rand Paul wrote in PolicyMic that the U.S. trying to "protect the entire globe" through a combination of foreign aid and military action makes the U.S. "less secure, not more." Full quote below:
"Another part of our debt woes is the trillions of dollars we spend fighting decade-long wars and sending foreign aid all over the world. America must always maintain a strong national defense, but young people can imagine a world in which the United States doesn’t have to be involved in every part of it. We can’t continue borrowing money from China or spending ourselves into debt to protect the entire globe. We simply cannot afford it. It is not what’s best for our country. It makes us less secure, not more."
Paul is returning to one of his favorite punching bags: foreign aid, and the argument that it makes the U.S. less secure. So does foreign aid make us safer? I’m going to tackle this question by talking about how the kinds of foreign aid that the U.S. doles out interact with our national security interests.
There are many different kinds of foreign aid, but I’m going to divide them into two main categories for our purposes: military and structural. These categorizations reflect the U.S.’s goal in giving this aid. Military aid usually reflects some specific U.S. national security interest in that country providing a military service on our behalf. A great example of this would be U.S. military aid to Pakistan, which allows U.S. use of Pakistani airfields for their Afghanistan operations. By contrast, structural aid has the primary goal of improving the recipient country, whether it be through humanitarian aid, loans, technical assistance, etc.
When people think of foreign aid, they usually think of structural aid. Critics of this kind of aid (such as Rand Paul) usually point to deficits in America and ask whether the U.S. can afford to be funding education or healthcare in other countries when these areas also require funding at home. Military aid, which is channeled both through the Department of Defense and the State Department, often escapes this kind of criticism except in particularly egregious cases.
Both of these forms of aid support U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, although structural aid does so more indirectly. Numerous scholars and studies have argued that foreign aid can be a key tool for counter-terrorism. After all, terrorism does not simply "spring up" in a country. It usually arises from a combination of grievances that might include corruption, poor governance, poor basic services like education or health care or roads, or a generalized lack of access to resources or political power. Ameliorating these conditions can be a powerful tool for preventing terrorist groups from forming or gathering support. However, these same studies have also noted that in some cases, foreign aid can exacerbate the conditions that lead to terrorism, as in particularly repressive countries foreign aid can fuel corruption or keep ineffective leaders in power.
Military aid has a more self-evident relationship with U.S. national security. An example of this would be the wars against Al-Qaeda proxies in Africa: ECOWAS and the French have been fighting Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali, while AMISOM has been fighting Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The U.S. has helped fund and assist both of these interventions, though no American boots are technically on the ground.
Now, military aid also has its drawbacks. International forces in both Somalia and Mali have been accused of also committing atrocities, albeit less than Al-Shabaab and AQIM. Foreign interventions are not always popular with the local populace, and can lead to retributive violence down the line.
So does foreign aid make us safer? It’s hard to tell what the long-term implications of military or structural aid will be on U.S. national security. At the moment, though, there’s no question that it’s being used in the service of defeating Al-Qaeda affiliates and preventing similarly aggressive successors from taking hold.
Despite what Rand Paul might say, a concept of strong national defense cannot be so easily decoupled from foreign aid. Now, there’s probably a solid case to be made for evaluating the effectiveness of our current counter-terrorism policy and tactics, including revisiting our foreign aid. But advocating for a strong national defense while simultaneously disavowing foreign aid ignores the very real role that the latter currently plays in the former.