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Devote Foreign Aid to the Important Few : Budget: New constraints mean choosing pivotal states like Mexico.

February 18, 1996|PAUL KENNEDY | Paul Kennedy is the author of "Preparing for the 21st Century" (1993) and a coauthor of a longer article on foreign aid in the current issue of Foreign Affairs

Foreign aid is especially vulnerable to the Washington policymakers' proclaimed intention of reaching a balanced budget in seven years. Some members of Congress have proposed reducing aid by 40% overall while still protecting the two most favored recipients, Israel and Egypt, which in effect would devastate U.S. capacity to help the developing world.

While knowledgeable Americans are aware that foreign assistance constitutes a very small part of federal spending, and that its entire elimination would hardly make a dent in the budget deficit, that fact is not recognized by most citizens or new Republican legislators.

What, then, should be done to ameliorate the impact of these cuts on American global interests and influence? The United States should take advantage of this otherwise unwelcome budgetary crisis to rethink its strategy toward the developing world. Instead of spreading its attention and resources too thin, America should concentrate on improving support to a few "pivotal states."

Ideally, helping all poor- and medium-income countries struggling with demographic, environmental and socioeconomic conditions should be the aim of U.S. aid. But since the current political climate excludes such enlightened realism, it is better to focus on bolstering those states whose fate affects regional stability and U.S. national interests.

For the present, I would designate the pivotal states to be Mexico and Brazil; Algeria, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa; Indonesia, India and Pakistan. This is not a sacred, fixed list: it might well change. But all of them face severe internal stresses, and because of their relative size and/or geopolitical importance, a deterioration in their condition could have extensive repercussions. By contrast, their success, which could simply be defined as their continued economic progress, environmental security and political stability, would bolster their regions' prosperity and benefit U.S. trade and investment.

All of these states deserve more focused attention by U.S. policymakers and agencies, even at the cost of reduced attention for the rest of the developing world (though I assume that Israel will continue to get special treatment).

By advancing the twin argument that (a) the fate of a few pivotal states is important to U.S. interests and (b) that those countries are threatened less by external aggressors than by overpopulation, migration, environmental damage and social strains, it is possible to bridge the conceptual divide in the post-Cold War debate over "old" versus "new" security threats. Mainstream policymakers, focused on the future of Russia or China, still consider nonmilitary security issues peripheral, whereas those concerned about environmental and demographic trends resist the realist emphasis on power and security objectives. A pivotal states strategy would encourage the integration of "new" security issues into the traditional state-centered framework and lend greater clarity to the making of foreign policy. People would understand why, from the viewpoint of national interests, what happens in, say, Algeria is much more important than what happens in Liberia.

This discriminate strategy would also reflect the modern U.S. aid tradition. The Cold War configured American assistance disproportionately in favor of specific targets--postwar Europe, Egypt--that would help us beat the Soviets. Today it would be easier to promote assistance on secular, realist terms, leaving it to other governments to fund "the poorest of the poor."

If that seems a cruel remark to an American public that believes it is the most generous of the world (in fact, the U.S. allocates the lowest percentage of gross domestic product of the rich nations to development aid), then perhaps this call to help the pivotal states might achieve one further result. By drawing attention to the awful nonmilitary pressures facing Mexico and other key states, arguments articulating why they need enhanced U.S. attention could awaken Americans to the folly of trying to turn our backs on the rest of the world. Were that to happen, Congress would come to see the need for a positive, proactive strategy toward the developing world instead of cutting what is a relatively modest investment in future international stability.

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