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Geopolitics connotes hard power, concerned as it is with the struggle over control of geographical space, a struggle that is primarily military and economic. Unsentimentality is the order of the day. Geopolitics and realism go hand in hand, therefore. Humanitarian aid would seem to have no place in this worldview. But that, as it turns out, is far too simplistic.

For power is also the power to persuade, and persuasion can take the form of winning friends, one village at a time. A policy that is purely military and economic has no idealistic component, and in an age of global media an idealistic component is required for credibility in the public space. In fact, foreign aid, as it came to be known during the Cold War, was a critical part of America's struggle against world communism. Building schools and roads, and teaching children how to read and farmers how to take advantage of the latest agricultural methods, was not merely altruistic; for it had the ulterior motive of demonstrating the superiority of America's values over those of its adversaries. When in 1961 President John F. Kennedy launched the Peace Corps, though his words were suffused with idealism, realpolitik was not far from his thoughts.

But the meaning of foreign aid has subtly shifted in the post-Cold War years. According to a commonly received narrative prevalent in the media, because communism has been vanquished, foreign policy is finally able to pursue idealistic ends untainted by realpolitik. Henceforth, foreign aid should be purely humanitarian, with minimal concern for whether or not it benefits U.S. national interest.

Ironically, this very altruism that abjures national interest has made America's foreign assistance programs not better but worse. Foreign aid is like any other organized pursuit: It requires a competitive mindset to excel. Aid workers must be aware of the ideological, philosophical and political opposition they will likely encounter in the field and prepare strategies to defeat it. They must learn to compete, in other words. That is the argument made by Nadia Schadlow, a program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation, in an article in the journal Orbis. (Disclosure: I have received grants over the years from Smith Richardson.)

Schadlow explains that because the military thinks competitively and the foreign assistance bureaucracy does not, the military is far more effective than the State Department, with the result being the militarization of foreign policy. Counterintuitively, the way to reduce America's reliance on hard power is to get the foreign aid bureaucracy to adopt a harder, more competitive approach to its own soft power. If the aid community thought competitively, like the military and the intelligence communities do, it would be more effective in the field, and the militarization of foreign policy would consequently diminish. "The imbalance between military and non-military instruments of power is likely to continue unless civilian agencies develop approaches which account for the contested landscapes in which they function," Schadlow explains. She quotes an Australian government aid expert: "Aid is 10 percent technical and 90 percent political."

The most obvious kind of competition comes from religious extremism. Aid workers in Nigeria immunizing children from polio have been murdered by radical Islamists, who believe such programs are plots to cause AIDS. In Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador drug cartels target civil society programs. In Russia and Iran democratization programs are under attack. Of course, one might argue that some of these civil society programs are in the first place naïve, because of the flawed Western assumption that its aid workers and nongovernmental organizations can change the values of non-Western societies. But that is a partial truth only, since better, more competitive programs would still manage to make inroads in places where our current programs cannot. The Chinese certainly think that way. Joshua Kurlantzick, an Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out that the Chinese employ the soft power of aid in a decidedly determined and coordinated manner to advance their foreign policy and security goals.