National Review / Digital
Conservative Foreign Aid
There is such a thing, but the GOP presidential candidates haven’t defined it


Nor did Reagan want to cut military aid. His platform makes a prescient reference to terror: “Foreign military assistance strengthens our security by enabling friendly nations to provide for their own defense, including defense against terrorism.” It also suggest that aid is for friends only: “To strengthen bilateral foreign assistance, we will reduce or eliminate assistance to nations with foreign policies contrary to our interests.” And the platform argues for strong U.S. support for human rights and democracy:

The American people believe that United States foreign policy should be animated by the cause of human rights for all the world’s peoples. . . . Republican concern for human rights also extends to the institutions of free societies — political parties, the free press, business and labor organizations — which embody and protect the exercise of individual rights. The National Endowment for Democracy and other instruments of U.S. diplomacy foster the growth of these vital institutions. . . . The National Endowment for Democracy has enlisted the talent of private American institutions, including the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to educate our friends overseas in the ways of democratic institutions.

This was not just charity:

For Republicans, the struggle for human freedom is more than an end in itself. It is part of a policy that builds a foundation for peace. When people are free to express themselves and choose democratic governments, their free private institutions and electoral power constitute a constraint against the excesses of autocratic rulers.

What might a conservative foreign-aid program look like, then? It may well be nearly as large as the current one, but much more efficient and effective. There are many programs that need a careful look. For example, what have we really achieved by spending roughly $2.5 billion a year in Pakistan, where we appear to be hated more widely every year? If Egypt moves away from peace with Israel, and indeed from democracy and religious freedom, under its next government, at what point do we stop giving it $1.5 billion a year? Do we have to spend $1.5 billion a year on “bilateral and multilateral programs to address global climate change”? How about the hundreds of millions the administration wants to send to the International Clean Technology Fund and the International Strategic Climate Fund, both of which appear to be searching for overseas versions of Solyndra?

We might attend to some good advice from Paul Bonicelli, now the executive vice president of Regent University, who in the George W. Bush administration was dispatched to USAID rather like a missionary sent to live among hostile tribes.

First, Bonicelli says, we should remember that poverty is not the product of a lack of resources, but rather of culture, bad economic policy, and bad government (including corruption). Ultimately, aid money is wasted unless it promotes free markets, respect for private property, and the rule of law. Unless we are promoting political and economic freedom, we are treating symptoms, not causes, for we are not giving people the tools to fight their poverty themselves.

Second, we should target aid money at friends and allies — as Bonicelli puts it, “those who are our allies, are plausibly our allies, could be induced to be our allies, and those who want to be our allies but are repressed and need our help to be free.” He notes that the last category includes democracy activists who are effectively governments-in-waiting and may eventually become aid donors themselves, as former aid recipients in South Korea and India have done.

Bonicelli concludes that giving money to corrupt and dictatorial regimes will never work, but that promoting free markets and freedom itself will. He favors continuing to fund the National Endowment for Democracy, as well as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, because “there are always Lech Walesas to support and there are always commonsense ways for government to dispense aid.”

He is right. A conservative approach would strengthen our friends around the world and help reduce poverty and oppression by supporting the rule of law, private property, and free markets. It would recognize that private efforts — whether motivated by the search for profits, the desire to help family members overseas, or religious faith and pure humanitarianism — are far larger and more effective than official aid programs, and that private voluntary organizations are usually far more efficient than government agencies. It would confidently assert that we have the proven formula for development, namely political and economic freedom. And it would demand that our aid programs be designed to promote that formula with the greatest possible efficiency and the least possible bureaucracy.

Cutting “foreign aid” is a reliable applause line, but it is fair to ask candidates who seek conservative votes to be a bit more specific. Just where do they think Ronald Reagan had it wrong?

– Mr. Abrams, a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, was the deputy national security adviser handling the Middle East in the George W. Bush administration.

November 28, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 22

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Tyler Cowen reviews Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics, by Nicholas Wapshott.
  • Richard Brookhiser reviews Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, by Dwight Macdonald.
  • Joseph Tartakovsky reviews Design for Liberty: Private Property, Public Administration, and the Rule of Law, by Richard A. Epstein.
  • Jacob Mchangama reviews Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide, by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea.
  • Ross Douthat reviews Margin Call.
  • To Mann, or not to Mann? John Derbyshire responds.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
The Bent Pin  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .