American Leadership At A Critical Moment

August 22, 2011 By Joel Paque

President Obama, Congress, the 2012 Republican candidates for President and the American public have all acknowledged that the United States must get our fiscal house in order and reduce the federal budget deficit. But this house cleaning shouldn’t entail shuttering the windows and bolting the door to the world. The recent debt-reduction deal has made clear that spending cuts will represent a significant portion of deficit reduction, but Congress must be cautious that it does not sacrifice the security and prosperity of our future for the savings of today. We are at a moment where effective U.S. engagement could help remake a large swath of the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring, including Libya and Syria.

Former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley refers to the Marshall Plan in the Washington Post when making the case that it is in America’s interest to invest in these countries’ transitions to democratic, free market societies. “We know how to help build the infrastructure of democracy: fair elections, political parties, free media and the rule of law. We know how to help stabilize economies, establish free markets and encourage foreign trade and investment that can provide a better economic life,” Hadley writes. The programs that build an “infrastructure of democracy” are funded by the International Affairs Budget, the 1% of the federal budget that encompasses all of our overseas diplomatic and development efforts.  These programs can work, as we have seen in the post-war reconstruction of Europe, countries like South Korea (once a recipient, now a donor of aid), and the transformation of former Soviet-bloc countries such as Poland into U.S. allies.

While it may seem easy for lawmakers to target global programs at a time of fiscal introspection, doing so would be short sighted and ignore an opportunity for global leadership that could enhance U.S. interests by bringing about significant change in a region long dominated by authoritarian rule.  As Hadley points out, the gears of change are already in full operation, but “our great challenge — and opportunity — is to help the people of the Middle East and North Africa transition to freedom, democracy and prosperity.” The U.S. did not cause these revolutions, nor can we be certain of their ultimate outcome, but the International Affairs Budget provides the programs and assistance that can lead to more open and democratic societies, which in turn lead to more stability and peace. If we invest in these programs, we can help ensure that these changes result in real progress.  If we pull back, it may be decades before another opportunity presents itself.