Confronting ideologically-motivated actors in globally competitive environments, the U.S. should adopt a more strategic and politicized approach to foreign aid, including democracy assistance, says a leading analyst.
“The United States is historically averse to picking ‘winners,’” says Nadia Schadlow, a Senior Program Officer in the Smith Richardson Foundation’s International Security & Foreign Policy Program.
“A consistent theme among both governmental and non-governmental actors in the democracy-promotion arena is the need to create a ‘level playing field,’ as opposed to supporting groups or individuals that represent a set of ideals consistent with American interests and values,” she writes in Competitive Engagement: Upgrading America’s Influence, an article in the latest issue of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“The emphasis throughout the past decade at least has been on process as opposed to the advancement of ideals that tend to contribute to the creation of successful societies: ideas such as support for entrepreneurship, tolerance, and the decent treatment of minorities,” Schadlow contends.
Calling for the U.S. to adopt a “posture of competitive engagement,” she notes that the militarization of foreign policy “is neither good for American interests nor sustainable, since many political, economic, and ideological outcomes are not attainable through the use of military force.”
“Yet ongoing discussions about America’s nonmilitary power miss one important factor: in virtually every theater of the world, local, regional, and strategic competitions affect America’s ability to exert influence through its aid and diplomacy,” Schadlow argues:
From Pakistan to the Middle East to Africa, ideas about how to develop economies, shape educational systems, administer health care programs, and build political institutions, are contested. Until the competitive nature of aid and diplomacy is deliberately and explicitly considered, Washington’s ability to achieve outcomes using its non-military power—often called “soft” or “smart power”—will remain fundamentally limited.
Her analysis will resonate with many democracy assistance practitioners and it is consistent with the National Endowment for Democracy’s latest Strategy Document which identifies “new areas of competition” in what was largely uncontested political terrain.
It also echoes themes raised in a recent article for ForeignPolicy.com in which the Brookings Institution’s Michael Doran and Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations highlighted the need to restore the capacity to conduct “political warfare” which expired at the end of the Cold War:
The U.S. government should reinvigorate its capacity to wage “political warfare,” defined in 1948 by George Kennan, then the State Department’s director of policy planning, as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.” Such measures, Kennan noted, were “both overt and covert” and ranged from “political alliances, economic measures (as ERP — the Marshall Plan), and ‘white’ propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.”
“According to a commonly received narrative prevalent in the media, because communism has been vanquished, foreign policy is finally able to pursue idealistic ends untainted by realpolitik,” he notes:
Ironically, this very altruism that abjures national interest has made America’s foreign assistance programs not better but worse. Foreign aid is like any other organized pursuit: It requires a competitive mindset to excel. Aid workers must be aware of the ideological, philosophical and political opposition they will likely encounter in the field and prepare strategies to defeat it.
Winning hearts and minds?
The U.S. is in the midst of a global argument “which pits historic Western liberalism against various forms of illiberal authoritarianism and reaction,” Kaplan writes, calling for an integrated approach to reviving the U.S.’s “power to persuade.”
“A policy that is purely military and economic has no idealistic component, and in an age of global media an idealistic component is required for credibility in the public space.”
Governmental and non-governmental agencies working abroad should reassess their operating environments in order to address the newly competitive context of their interactions, Schadlow writes.
Aid is 10% technical, 90% political
“A posture of competitive engagement would require that the civilian actors who oversee U.S. economic and humanitarian programs account for the fact that new ideas, economic strategies, civic action plans, and even public health-related initiatives are contested by vested interests or ideological or political opponents,” she insists.
“It requires the recognition that even the building of a girl’s school in Afghanistan or a health clinic in the Sudan is a political act. As the head of the Australian government’s aid agency put it, ‘aid is 10 percent technical and 90 percent political.’”
But the United States and other Western donor governments “have adopted more political goals and methods in their aid over the past twenty years,” according to Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Diane de Gramont, nonresident research analyst at Carnegie.
Nevertheless, they “now face a fundamental choice: whether to stick to their convictions about the importance of melding the political and economic elements of development or instead retreat to more limited approaches and aspirations,” they recently wrote for Foreign Policy:
While some may be tempted to argue that aid should pull back from politics and focus only on basics such as healthcare or primary education, such an approach is neither feasible nor wise. Almost all major aid organizations, both bilateral and multilateral, have established a range of politically-oriented aid programs and accumulated considerable knowledge about how to make a positive political difference, whether explicitly framed as democratic progress or as more accountable and participatory governance. Donors pursue these objectives not just because they believe that democratic governance is intrinsically a good thing, but also because they consider it central to sustainable socioeconomic progress.
“Dozens of governments have proposed or enacted measures to limit or block foreign aid flows to domestic groups, vilified local non-governmental organizations for working with foreigners, and harassed or kicked out international NGOs,” Carothers and de Gramont contend.
“By its very nature, foreign aid is politically sensitive,” they argue. “Efforts by one country to change basic elements of life in another through injections of financial and technical resources are inherently intrusive.”