Strategic Foreign Assistance

Monday, October 30, 2006

Recent headlines are filled with expressions of deep concern about deteriorating conditions in Iraq and, more broadly, about U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world. The larger problem is related to basic assumptions of U.S. foreign policy, which was developed for relations with strong states, but is now struggling in its efforts to engage the weak and failed states that have become our greatest security concerns.  

Events since 9/11 have shown that the most important threats to our security now come from weak states, which have little control over their societies, and the multitudes of unknown, invisible nonstate actors (terrorists) who seek refuge in weak states. Security today, therefore, partly depends on engaging those societies and encouraging economic, political, legal, and social change within them.

Because the threat has changed, the means necessary to meet the threat must change as well. Although the state instruments that protected national security and fostered development for the past half-century remain important for a variety of purposes, they have limited capacity to promote many kinds of desirable changes inside other countries. This is especially true where institutions are weak and the need to promote the development of societies is strong.

Building Civil Society

Because some nonstate actors are now among the greatest threats to security, foreign policymakers must work with other nonstate actors—civil society organizations (CSOs)—to meet the economic, political, and social challenges that underlie these new security threats. To do this, the United States must develop a strategic foreign cooperation and assistance policy that fosters strong civil societies as an important end for promoting development, in addition to its traditional role as a means to deliver aid. This increased focus on civil society should deepen connections with citizens in the failed, weak, and/or fragile states that harbor terrorists, and it will identify many citizens of other countries who will work with us because it is in their own and their nation’s interest to do so.

Despite wide agreement and much rhetoric about the need to address development issues in new ways, real change is slow to happen. Aid budgets since 9/11, although larger, reflect little change in spending priorities.

Civil society has an especially important role to play in promoting democracy. The social foundation of democracy is built on political consensus and social trust. The challenges of moving through difficult ventures in relationship-building—whether in bringing Sunnis into the political process in Iraq or in opening the Egyptian political system so the secular democratic groups and the Muslim Brotherhood can play an open role or in encouraging opposition groups like Hamas in Palestine to give up violence—are especially great if the path is bounded by formal processes that constrain most government action. Civil society, on the other hand, is uniquely positioned to facilitate informal engagement and networking to build relationships of trust to solve these problems and many others.

Building civil society has not been a high priority of U.S. development assistance policy planning. In practice, however, U.S. Agency for International Development missions have implemented many of their programs through international CSOs, which in turn typically work through local CSO partners. Local civil society organizations, as a result, have burgeoned in the past two decades, undertaking a wide variety of economic, legal, social, and political activities. In some countries they have promoted significant, positive changes that have been aligned with U.S. foreign policy objectives. These include education for girls (in many countries); institutional, judicial, and legal reform (in Pakistan); micro-finance programs (in Bangladesh); voter surveys and education (in Afghanistan and Indonesia); “people’s assemblies” as quasi-constitutional conventions (in Pakistan); and many others.

Despite the breadth of CSO activity and influence in many countries, we believe the U.S. foreign policy community and, above all, senior foreign policymakers have not yet recognized the potential that CSOs have to help achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives. As a result, CSOs are not yet playing the role they could in mitigating the conditions that promote terrorism and in achieving sustainable development.

Because the threat has changed, the means necessary to meet the threat must change as well.

Building prosperous, developed civil societies can be one of the most powerful antidotes to terrorism. The shift in focus to societies that breed terrorists would follow a long-standing pattern in American development assistance of using foreign aid for strategic purposes. After World War II nearly all U.S. foreign aid went to Western Europe to foster the psychological, political, and economic resources to resist Soviet subversion and aggression. In the late 1950s, U.S. aid shifted to Southeast Asia. In the 1960s, the Alliance for Progress aimed to promote democracy and socioeconomic development and meet the Cuban expansionist movement in Latin America. Then, in the 1970s, U.S. aid shifted to the Middle East, especially to Egypt and Israel. It has recently, especially since 9/11, expanded to South and West Asia, especially Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Aid policy must now shift to deepen involvement and connections in these and many other countries.

Expanding Our Options

One of the great virtues of society-based initiatives is that they can be used not just in countries “friendly” to the United States—such as Indonesia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Colombia, and Uganda—but also in countries such as Syria, Iran, and Venezuela. They can also provide an opening to progress in societies in Africa and Latin America that are emerging from civil or ethnic conflict, as well as in many countries that are still caught up in conflict.

We must deepen connections with citizens in the failed or fragile states that harbor terrorists, and we must identify citizens of those countries who will work with us.

Giving priority to society-based initiatives will add crucial economic, political, and social development instruments to foreign policymaking. Without these instruments and limited to state-based interventions, the United States and its allies will face choices between extreme positions and limited possibilities for success. The sterile dance between Europe and the United States over what to do about Iran’s nuclear program is a perfect example of what happens when there are only “good cop/bad cop” state-focused choices.

Despite wide agreement and much rhetoric about the need to address development issues in new ways, real change is slow to happen. Aid budgets since 9/11, although larger, reflect little change in spending priorities. New initiatives such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) have been accorded low priority and are underfunded. Disappointment over MEPI is now leading to the consideration of creating a new, independent organization to support the Middle East modeled on the Asia Foundation. The new organization could support civil society and engage in advocacy on institutional and policy issues. Although policymakers are constantly debating how to strengthen U.S. foreign assistance programs, and although they are in a continual learning process, they have not, until now, established development policies and priorities that would contribute strategically to post–Cold War foreign policy.

To achieve this goal, the government’s development agencies, Congress, country missions, and the development “industry” must work together to make a strategic foreign assistance program a reality.