Those are two vastly different questions that cover two ways of looking at the same thing.
But last month, the non-partisan Chicago Council on Global Affairs published a poll that asked Americans whether they felt it would be best for the future of the country if it stayed active in world affairs or, instead, retreated. Sixty-nine percent said America should stay active. At least half said alliances benefit both parties in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, and 87% said international trade was good for the American economy.
It’s easy to understand why Americans might question involvement in wars that have dragged on virtually since 9/11, with no end in sight, but people seem to appreciate the need to spread U.S. influence abroad. The question is how to do this.
Truth is, some problems may require boots on the ground, while some are best accomplished through carefully directed money. A decision to use, or not to use, one or the other could come with consequences.
China is trying hard to spread its influence through interest-bearing loans to developing countries, which some have labeled “debt-trap diplomacy.” If the United States withdraws from trying to help the developing world, it’s clear others will fill the vacuum. Do we want that?
In Syria, Kurdish forces that helped the United States defeat ISIS now feel betrayed and abandoned, which could affect the nation’s ability to defend national interests in that volatile region in the future.
The takeaway from all this may be that the public isn’t qualified to make such decisions because it isn’t equipped with the facts.
For instance, opinion polls consistently find that people overestimate how much the federal government spends on foreign aid. As the Brookings Institution’s George Ingram wrote last week, opinion polls generally show Americans believe this takes up about 25% of the overall budget. The real answer is it uses less than 1%, or an actual figure this year of $39.2 billion.
Ingram outlined several myths about foreign aid, including that other nations don’t do their share (most spend more of their gross national product on foreign assistance than does the U.S.), that aid goes to corrupt and wasteful governments or dictators, something that was much more common during the Cold War.
Today, the U.S. puts stringent accountability rules on the money it gives, and it bypasses autocratic governments by contributing to private non-governmental organizations. And much of the foreign aid has led to measurable results.
As I’ve written before, U.S. humanitarian aid has helped the world put a huge dent in preventable childhood deaths in Third World countries. The trendline is unmistakable. About 6 million fewer children died in 2016 than in 1990, and experts believe all such preventable deaths could be eradicated by 2030.
The U.S. helps this by contributing to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, which has a program that requires developing nations to cover their own vaccination costs once childhood deaths are under control within their borders.
It should be easy to see that this kind of aid helps struggling nations prosper. When you no longer have to worry about children dying in huge numbers, you can focus on building roads and schools and promoting businesses. And when people no longer feel consumed with despair and hopelessness, they won’t be as susceptible to radical ideologies.
Yes, aid sometimes has to come by military means, and sometimes through the funding of programs. No one wants to fight wars that go on forever, and the nation always should re-evaluate the effectiveness of its ongoing campaigns. But it’s important, as well, to quantify the price of pulling out.
As the nation learned on 9/11, things that are hatched in far away places can end up roosting on our shores.