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U.S. National Security: Down on the Farm?

What increases national security, the United States reaching out — or retrieving into a shell?

February 27, 2002

What increases national security, the United States reaching out — or retrieving into a shell?

After the events of September 11, the most lasting monument to the victims of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington would be if some good emerged from those terrible occurrences. But just what would that be? Surely it should be more than a mere wake up call for the United States — and increased security on the home front.

Jim Kolbe, a prominent Republican Congressman from Arizona, recently had the vision to declare that the money spent on foreign aid in the United States budget ought to be viewed as part of U.S. national security. “The leading arm of national security,” Kolbe said, “has to be international diplomacy.”

Kolbe and other proponents of this vision believe that America should combat future terrorists by helping raise the living standards of the world’s poor.

The United States should provide vaccinations for kids, build schools, create economic infrastructure — and educate women.

In other words, the United States would be more secure — and the world a much safer place — if everybody were a bit richer.

After all, it’s not as if the U.S. and other wealthy nations of the world can’t afford such beneficence. Less than one billion people, or 15% of the world population, live in rich countries and enjoy incomes that total tens of thousands dollars a year.

At the same time, three billion people — or half of the world’s population — survive on less than $2 per day. And one billion live in abject poverty, making do with less than a dollar a day — or around $350 per year.

Critics of “spreading the wealth” suggest that such measures represent a cave in to terrorism. They argue that an admission of past mistakes would somehow retroactively justify horrific terrorist acts. Responding with proactive policies, rather than demanding an eye for an eye, would be a sign of America’s weakness.

It is a clear sign of progress that some Republicans in the U.S. Congress — who have consistently opposed foreign spending — now embrace the notion that such aid is important. Tying it to the potent issue of national security is an even greater advance in political reasoning.

But, unfortunately, this is not the view of the leadership of the U.S. Republican Party — or that of the Bush Administration. The United States gave just $9 billion the foreign aid in 1999, or, at 0.1% of its GDP — the lowest percentage in the OECD.

By contrast, tiny Denmark donates 1% of its GDP as development aid. If the United States gave as high as percentage of its GDP as Denmark does, the sum would amount to a whopping $100 billion. It’s a number that would double the current amount of global spending on such aid.

Yet, the Bush budget for FY 2003 — which raises defense spending by $48 billion — adds nothing new for foreign aid. In fact, the U.S. President sees a rather different kind of spending as a national security issue.

Speaking before a convention of cattle ranchers in Salt Lake City in February, 2002, Mr. Bush declared that it is “in our national security interests that we be able to feed ourselves.”

The purpose of Mr. Bush’s remarks, of course, was to signal that his administration would throw its weight behind domestic farm subsidies. These subsidies are now up for renewal, and they will cost $172 billion over the next 10 years.

But subsidizing agriculture in rich countries is not only a spending alternative to foreign aid. It deals a direct blow to poor countries as well. Such subsidies deprive them of a ready market for their agricultural products that could lift millions of the rural poor in developing countries out of poverty.

Worse, subsidies create massive agricultural surpluses, which are then dumped in world markets, thus depressing world food prices. Many efficient farmers around the world are ruined as a result, compounding the global poverty problem.

One man in Washington who understands this deplorable connection is Horst Köhler, the managing director of the IMF. Mr. Köhler has sharply criticized the agricultural subsidies provided by the United States, Japan and the EU to their own farmers, labeling them as “unconscionable.”

Eliminating these subsidies, says Mr. Kohler, is “the true test of the credibility of wealthy nations’ efforts to combat poverty.”

Another conclusion that looms large in President Bush’s remarks is that his administration’s real solution to the U.S. national security problem is to move toward an all-around Fortress America. Yes, this answer to homeland defense means increased checks. But it also envisions an America that is self-sufficient in everything from beef to crude oil — and a new political unilateralism too.

Of course, there are plenty of questions about whether circling the wagons to create Fortress America will work. Certainly, the newly “safe” United States will not be beneficial if American businessmen and tourists fear venturing abroad.

Going the global route proposed by Mr. Kolbe offers a more promising way to make the world safe for democracy. In other words, bolstering smartly spent foreign aid will attack the root causes of terrorism and unrest, including poverty and lack of opportunity.

But those in the U.S. political process who advocate foreign aid face a tall order. Surely, the ranks of the world’s poor are numerous — numbering in the billions. The problem is that the staggering majority of those poor people are foreigners — and they cannot vote in U.S. elections.

On the other hand, farmers, oilmen, border guards and other law enforcement officials entrusted with guarding Fortress America do have the right to vote. It doesn’t take much to guess which solution the latter group will prefer.