Is foreign aid necessary for national security?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report "Foreign Aid and National Security" by Nellie Bristol on June 17, 2011.


The importance of the connection between non-military foreign aid and national security is being supported strongly by what may be a surprising group: former and active members of the U.S. military. And the message is coming from the top: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. “It has become clear that America's civilian institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and underfunded for far too long relative to what we spend on the military, and more important, relative to the responsibilities and challenges our nation has around the world,” Gates said in 2008. [Footnote 11]

Gates sees civilian tools of “persuasion and inspiration” as indispensable to a stable world. “We cannot kill or capture our way to victory,” he said. “What the Pentagon calls ‘kinetic’ operations should be subordinate to measures to promote participation in government, economic programs to spur development and efforts to address grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies and among the discontented from which the terrorists recruit.”

Retired Adm. James M. Loy, former deputy secretary of Homeland Security and Coast Guard commandant, traces the shift in approach to September 11. Since the attacks, he says, “the very definition of national security is much broader in scope.” While pre-9/11 security operations might have involved the White House, the National Security Council and the State and Defense departments, they now include participants ranging from the Treasury and Justice departments to the Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency.

“Who would have thought we'd ever pine for the good old days of the Cold War, with the simplistic notion of a couple of superpowers keeping client states under their wing and in order, all fostered by the notion of mutually assured destruction?” says Loy, now co-chair of the National Security Advisory Council at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a network of business and nongovernmental leaders that advocates increased use of civilian power. In today's more complicated world, he adds, “We're still trying to understand it.”

Investment in civilian operations is considered a “best buy” by J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). It is much cheaper to send specialists in health or elections to a country than to fund a military intervention, not to mention saving the lives and limbs of soldiers, he notes. Supporters of development as a national security tool acknowledge that definitive results for the approach are hard to find, mostly because it's difficult to measure what would have happened absent the aid. But, Morrison argues, “there's the kind of presumptive, wise, forward investment in creating a form of human security, accountability and transparency that will make for a better-functioning world.”

Afghanistan is frequently cited as an example of how aid would have protected the United States. When the Russians left in 1989, after nearly 10 years of war and occupation, the United States didn't follow through in rebuilding. Such actions can have serious consequences, comments Adm. Loy, who says, “Often when we've watched [foreign aid] fall, we've paid the price shortly thereafter.”

But not everyone agrees. James Roberts, a research fellow for economic freedom and growth at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, warned that “out of control federal spending” leads to a national security threat and that traditional development assistance “does not work, at least not if the goal is to foster sustainable development in poor countries.” [Footnote 12] He said development is better accomplished through private organizations. He did, however, laud humanitarian aid delivered under U.S. global HIV/AIDS programs.

Justin Logan, associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says strategic aid is unnecessary and counterproductive. “I think we're secure, independent of these efforts to try to tinker with the balance of power in other regions,” he says. He calls a lot of aid, especially to problematic allies such as Egypt and Pakistan, “bribery.” “I don't buy the Rube Goldberg theory that regional instability everywhere will always come back to bite us, [a view] I think is quite prevalent in Washington,” he adds.

U.S. willingness to engage throughout the world has made other countries less motivated to provide services for their citizens or even shore up their own defenses, Logan says. The U.S. tendency to pick and choose when and how to get involved in conflicts internationally “taints the image of America as a beacon of liberalism and democracy to the rest of the world and in some cases causes actual animosity and terrorism against the United States,” he adds.

Significantly, among those not fully convinced by the development aid-as-national security argument are lawmakers influential in budget matters. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., developed a 2012 budget plan that would have cut international affairs funding, which includes foreign aid, by as much as 28 percent. [Footnote 13]

And Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, chair of the House Appropriations Committee's State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee, said that given the country's constrained economic circumstances, foreign aid needs to be focused on “direct national security.” [Footnote 14]

While she acknowledged the connection between foreign aid and national security in long-term U.S. commitments to Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Mexico, she suggested other, less pressing development investments would be a lower priority in the current climate. “We have to look at our national security, particularly in foreign aid, and say, What is in our national security interest?” she said.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., makes the most extreme case against foreign aid, saying all aid should be cut, even to longtime ally Israel. Citing a Reuter's poll, Paul said, “71 percent of the American people agree with me that when we're short of money, when we can't do the things we need to do in our country, we certainly shouldn't be shipping the money overseas.” In making his case, Paul said that while he's sympathetic to challenges faced by developing countries, aid money too often goes to unscrupulous leaders. “You don't want to just keep throwing money to corrupt leaders who steal it from their people,” he argued.

Moreover, Paul said, U.S. aid to Israel is matched by aid to Islamic countries, possibly contributing to an arms race in the region. “I don't think that funding both sides of an arms race, particularly when we have to borrow the money from China to send it to someone else — we just can't do it anymore. The debt is all-consuming, and it threatens our well-being as a country.” [Footnote 15]

The Issues:

  • Is foreign aid necessary for national security?
  • Does the U.S. benefit from foreign aid spending?
  • Does the United States give too much aid to authoritarian governments?
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[11] Robert Gates, speech to the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign, July 15, 2008, Washington, D.C.,

[12] James Roberts, “Not All Foreign Aid is Equal,” Backgrounder, The Heritage Foundation, March 1, 2011.

[13] “The Path to Prosperity: Restoring America's Promise, Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Resolution,” House Committee on Budget,

[14] Kay Granger, “PBS NewsHour,” March 10, 2011,

[15] Matt Schneider, “Sen. Paul Rand: We Should End all Foreign Aid to Countries, Including Israel,” Medialite, Jan. 30, 2011,