- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Even as Americans are understandably focused internally on getting our economic and fiscal houses in order, we are constantly reminded that the rest of the world is not standing still. A debt crisis in Europe could drag down an already struggling U.S. economy. China is using its new wealth to modernize its military and expand its influence around Asia. The Arab awakening is ushering in a new political era throughout the Middle East. War and famine are ravaging the Horn of Africa.

The question before us is how America should respond to these challenges. At a time of economic distress and huge deficits that demand tough choices, it is tempting for elected officials to scale back this country’s engagement around the globe, in particular by making cuts to programs that support diplomacy and international development.

Yet too much is at stake to diminish America’s leadership and competitiveness in a world that is growing more interconnected and interdependent - as well as more turbulent - virtually every day.

Consider what is happening in the Middle East - a region in which the United States has fought two major wars in the past 20 years. Tunisians just went to the polls for the very first time to elect a government and, after more than 40 years of dictatorship, Libya has the opportunity for a democratic future.

As a result of the Arab awakening, an opportunity exists as never before to shape the future of the region by supporting genuine political and economic reforms. Yet the situation on the ground remains volatile. Democratic gains could be reversed if chaos and poverty empower the most radical elements in those societies. These developments ultimately would threaten our own security and prosperity, as this part of the world produced the Sept. 11 hijackers and continues to be home to much of the world’s energy supplies.

It is in America’s national interests to support smart investments in development assistance and governance that can help these fledgling democracies succeed, as well as support vital allies in the region such as Israel. But doing so requires adequate resources and political support for the diplomatic and development efforts that will make such progress possible.

Consider as well the heartbreaking famine unfolding in Somalia and other East African countries, putting 13 million people at risk of starvation, a total that exceeds the entire population of Pennsylvania. Tragedies like this can be avoided with effective assistance that ultimately accrues to America’s benefit. Almost 10 years ago, a similar number of people in Ethiopia faced starvation. As a result of U.S. agricultural and global health development programs that empowered local farmers and villagers to be self-sufficient, the number of people at risk of famine has dropped by about 70 percent. Ethiopia is now a valuable ally of the United States in our efforts to counter the influence of violent extremist groups in the Horn of Africa.

These investments, while a relatively tiny share of federal spending, pay significant dividends for our country. Less than 60 years ago, the U.S. government engaged in an effort to rebuild and develop an impoverished country emerging from a period of civil war. Today, South Korea is not only the seventh-largest trading partner with the United States - volume that will only increase with the enactment of a new free-trade agreement - it is also a donor to other developing countries.

We have seen in other countries, such as Chile and Colombia, that effective development assistance helps create markets and customers for Americans. With nearly 95 percent of the world’s consumers living outside the United States, we will lose our competitive edge if we don’t engage in the global marketplace.

For more than a decade, the international affairs budget had growing bipartisan support. However, Congress is now considering the steepest cuts to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development since the end of the Cold War, despite the fact that diplomacy and development programs make up about 1 percent of the federal budget.

At a time of trillion-dollar deficits, all parts of the federal budget merit scrutiny, and the international affairs account is no exception. But to slash needed investments in America’s leadership around the world will be more costly to our country. Congress and all of those seeking our country’s highest office should recognize that strategic reality and commit themselves to sustaining America’s civilian instruments of national power and influence. In doing so, they will protect our country’s security and prosperity and help build a better, safer world.

Frank Carlucci was national security adviser and secretary of defense under President Reagan. Lee H. Hamilton, a retired Democratic congressman, was vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission. Tom Ridge was homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush. They are members of the Advisory Council for the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.

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