Foreign Assistance May Be the United States’ Ace in the Hole

Screenshot from CSPAN

I grew up in the deep south of Reagan’s America. My father was a veteran and I lived near two Air Force bases, so just about everyone around me talked constantly about how great this country is. Maybe that is why during Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of State yesterday, some deep seated part of me couldn’t help but love his metaphor for the state of the world. “…We’ve got a tough hand of cards … and we’re just gonna play that hand out... because what I know is that America still holds all the aces.”  

I believe that’s true, and I believe it at my core. And part and parcel of that is recognizing that a fundamental part of this country’s global leadership is a full embrace of our diplomacy, development, and humanitarian capacity. So at the risk of overplaying a metaphor, let me draw those particular aces out of the deck.

The ace of clubs is a broad recognition that the crises we face today can only be solved with United States’ global engagement. The humanitarian aftermath of Aleppo, destabilizing political events in the Ukraine, or a global health threat like Ebola – the results of these things directly affect us as a country. The horror of them affects as human beings. All three call for U.S. involvement through humanitarian and development channels, not a purely military response. 

The ace of spades represents clear realization that it is in the U.S. national interest to lead with development and humanitarian responses. Foreign assistance supports our strategic interest by building alliances and partnerships all over the world. It promotes our long term economic interest by creating growth, and it spreads American values by promoting democracy, individual rights, and entrepreneurship. Whether we are concerned about instability, extremism, or insecurity, the United States foreign assistance portfolio has an irreplaceable role to play. 

The ace of hearts springs from the fact that foreign assistance directly reflects the values of the American people. Americans give billions of dollars per year to international charity. We see ourselves as a beacon of hope for those whose rights are abused or who live in fear and want.  For years, the fact that Americans believe providing humanitarian assistance and development investments is “just the right thing to do” has produced a bipartisan consensus that led to stunning innovations in how the U.S. delivers assistance. 

Finally, the ace of diamonds stands for our assets, and recognition that U.S. foreign assistance works – and works best when we rely on a variety of independent, appropriately resourced development agencies to deliver results. The U.S. can leverage its private sector when there is a market opportunity. We can turn to the good governance and accountability requirements of MCC to make large economic investments in some countries. But we rely on USAID as the lead development agency to sustain long term programs over time, in countries where our interest is best served by responding to the needs of populations when their governments can not, and to manage humanitarian responses to both man made and natural disasters. Different types of assistance have different goals, and we have tailor made tools to deliver. 

So Mr. Tillerson, now that you know where those aces are, we look to you to play them. Global engagement through diplomacy, development, and humanitarian channels makes our country strong, represents our values, and is in our national interest.  The American people support the values, and the results, of U.S. foreign assistance. There’s no reason to fold with a hand like that.