From the Marshall Plan to the funding of the Peace Corps, foreign aid has long been a cornerstone of the United States’ projection of power, a means of supporting allies and increasing the viability of potential partners. Recently, however, the utilization of foreign aid has begun to shift, with the White House increasingly employing the tool—when they recognize it as a tool at all—as a stick rather than a carrot. Although potentially beneficial in the short-term, this shift in the use of foreign aid will ultimately endanger the United States’ long-term security objectives.
For example, in March the State Department announced that it was cutting off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The implicit reason behind the cut in funding was the Trump administration’s attempt to pressure those countries into adopting policies that would reduce illegal immigration into the United States. Though these cuts have been partially walked back since, this use of foreign aid resembles what the Rand Corporation called the “Power to Coerce” (P2C), or the use of nonmilitary tools in foreign policy to force other states to adopt specific policies or positions.
While P2C plays a valuable role in a state’s projection of power, in the vast majority of cases foreign aid should not be stored in this particular toolbox. Instead, foreign aid should be utilized as an element of soft power. Joseph Nye defined soft power as the ability to co-opt and attract cooperation from other states through aid, thereby shaping their long-term attitudes and preferences. Comparing these two approaches demonstrates that incorporating foreign aid into the latter is superior.
As implied in its name, P2C is a means of coercion, and coercion can lead to resentment. If a community accepts aid but is resentful of it, the United States will lose one of the key strategic interests of foreign aid: the favorable cultivation of a community’s perception of the United States and its values. This ability to influence perception is critically important—to the degree that it is a key objective of soft power. If a community perceives the United States favorably and shares its values, then that community will be naturally inclined towards adopting positions consistent with and favorable to the United States. A resentful community, however, is unlikely to share this inclination.
Recipient resentment caused by P2C also negatively impacts the more mundane objectives of funded projects, such as increasing the resilience of a community against radicalization. A resentful community is likely to be distrustful of any efforts of the actor it resents and that distrust will undermine the community’s buy-in, thereby limiting the stabilizing potential of the project. Moreover, if radicalization is not prevented, this long-term resentment against the United States increases the likelihood that the United States or its personnel will be a target.
Lastly, the use of foreign aid as a coercive tool removes any pretense of foreign aid being humanitarian. Although foreign aid is not charity, improving the lives of people around the world is a core and worthwhile objective. Yet, when foreign aid is used as a tool of coercion, any connection to morality is removed, negatively impacting the perception of these projects and any potential international support.
By contrast, foreign aid is at its most persuasive when used as an element of soft power, subtly shaping the communities it acts upon and making the United States safer in the process. For instance, the United States’ use of foreign aid is integral to combating the spread of terrorism, rather than merely addressing its manifestation. Foreign aid for preventing violent extremism (PVE) programs reduces the underlying factors that contribute to radicalization and, over a period of years, transforms and stabilizes a community or even a region. Another potent example of how foreign aid benefits US security is in fighting the spread of disease, which does not respect international boundaries. Without foreign aid to provide vaccines abroad, smallpox and other diseases would never have been eradicated globally.
Adopting the soft power approach also allows the US to cultivate ties with important local partners, who in turn favorably influence their state’s perception of the US and its values. In addition, local partners increase the likelihood of foreign aid projects’ success. Local partners are intimately familiar with local communities and cultures, know how to most effectively and efficiently apply the funds, and win the trust and acceptance of the community—including by being the local face of the project. Moreover, partners facilitate the eventual transfer of project ownership to the local community, an essential step for long-lasting development. These relationships—and the resulting benefits—are directly threatened by including foreign aid in P2C.
Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was on the mark when he explained, “US foreign assistance is not charity; it advances our strategic interests and funds initiatives that protect American citizens.” In other words, foreign aid as an element of soft power helps create safer communities that contribute to the security and defense objectives, of the United States. In addition to bettering life in these states, foreign aid positively changes their community’s perspectives on the United States and the values it wishes to advance.
When it comes to enacting change quickly, using foreign aid as a tool of P2C is, at times, desirable. Coercion can influence foreign state behavior in the immediate term, whereas soft power accomplishes change very gradually. However, undermining long-term objectives to achieve immediate short-term victories is a losing strategy. Foreign aid as a tool of soft power increases stability, decreases conflict, and makes partners out of potential enemies. This creates a real and lasting difference, which benefits both the world and the United States. It should not be sacrificed for short-term satisfaction.