Andy M. Kin/U.S. Air Force

Limited Aid, Unlimited Intervention

There is an American belief that the democratic system of government is the most suitable, even the most desirable, for all countries. This misconception is exploited when the United States decides to aid the economic and military success of foreign governments, economically and/or militarily, thereby gaining the opportunity for political influence. The argument for these actions is that democracy leads to stability, and stable countries do not become threats to the American people. However, prior attempts at using aid to democratize have proven to produce negligible if not detrimental effects. There are more effective ways to aid other countries and boost economic development that do not require political intervention. For this to be achieved, there must be legislation that provides a framework for the distribution of foreign aid. The policy would designate that non-military aid should be given through independent organizations which are funded by the State Department, thereby preventing democratization and political influence. Also, military aid, if given at all, should be given to the country under assault, not necessarily the one considerably more democratic.

The United States’ goal is to stabilize foreign countries and prevent them from becoming a threat. The government does this through USAID, which describes its mission as, “focused on sustainable development outcomes that places a premium on broad-based economic growth, democratic governance, game-changing innovations, and sustainable systems for meeting basic human needs.” Note that the government directly admits to spreading democracy. One should also wonder what these struggling countries could possibly do to compensate for the millions of dollars the United States gives them in aid. Often the cost of accepting this aid is political influence, specifically, shifting to a more democratic style of government.

In The Dynamics of Democratization: Dictatorship, Development, and Diffusion, Nathan Brown questions the effectiveness of forcing democracy on an unwilling country.

He writes, “There is no single path to democratization, the relationship between economic development and democracy is complicated, and a supportive international environment can help, but not ensure democratic breakthroughs.” Brown points out two issues with democratization; converting to democracy can be difficult and success is never guaranteed. This process is essentially funding governments that are ineffective or abusive without ensuring that the aid will improve the situation.

Critic Joseph Wright even suggests in his work that funding unstable governments will simply add to their instability. He claims, “Some critics of aid regimes argue that aid decreases the likelihood of democratization by contributing to the development of ‘bad’ institutions.” More money in the hands of an incapable government may reduce the symptoms of instability, but it will not fix the underlying cause. Wright goes on to explain that dictators will only accept aid if they believe they can survive the political shift towards democracy. There is no guarantee that these countries will become any more stable than they were before the United States intervened, yet the government continues to irresponsibly use tax money to fund democratization.

Using foreign aid to democratize is a huge financial risk that the government would be wise to avoid. Paul Brinkley gives an example of the after-effects of war in his article, “How to Fix Foreign Aid,” insisting, “All war-torn countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, share a common characteristic — the absence or destruction of economic infrastructure. The lack of opportunity fuels frustration and unrest, giving violent actors an opening to destabilize fragile institutions.” Part of their efforts to create stability in Afghanistan included the United States giving 3.3 billion dollars of aid to Afghanistan in 2013. Brinkley would argue that their instability is exactly the reason that the government should not have tied any political pressure to such an immense amount of aid.

He goes on to explain that the United States foreign policy system is not infallible, stating, “The mistaken belief that the United States is the great rebuilder of postwar countries — a belief that stems from the U.S.-funded aid to the postwar economic expansions in Japan, Germany, and South Korea — has fostered expectations that our diplomatic and foreign aid institutions cannot fulfill.” Brinkley points out that the fact that success is possible, gives the government hope that aid can be beneficial. They cannot, however, view aid as a means of gaining power. In order for a post-war country to rebuild, it needs to be allowed to grow in any political direction. Therefore, democratization counteracts the purpose of giving foreign aid. Additionally, aid recipients often become over-reliant on the funding they receive, thereby making it impossible to escape the political influence tied to aid.

This is often seen in impoverished, third world countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Kenya. Journalist, Mariana Ottoway’s essay “Africa Notes: Should Elections be the Criterion of Democratization in Africa?,” argues, “African governments are beginning to comply, not necessarily because they believe in the virtues of democracy or because of pressure from strong internal opposition parties but because they feel that the international community, and above all the United States, demands it.” Although some may argue that all countries would be better off as democracies, it seems more likely that there is no one style of government that suits all nations perfectly. Ottoway understands that if the government is not formed by the people and for the people, then it will likely fail.

Similarly, Burcu Savun explains in “Foreign Aid, Democratization, and Civil Conflict: How Does Democracy Aid Affect Civil Conflict?” why these African countries have not yet collapsed, saying, “We argue that one of the key factors that ‘shelters’ democratizing states from domestic political violence is the receipt of external democratization aid.” Though they may appear stable, these countries are not able to grow independently since they are overly reliant on aid. Political unrest and poor leadership can easily be masked by external assistance. Without political freedom, they will never be able to install an effective government, a stable economic system, or a strengthened infrastructure.

In 2010, the White House released the “Fact Sheet: U.S. Global Development Policy,” which suggested, “The United States cannot do all things, do them well, and do them everywhere. Instead, the U.S. must focus its efforts in order to maximize long-term impact.” Additionally, the government must also be aware that the people paying taxes deserve to see the benefits of that tax money close to home. There is no denying that other impoverished countries are in need of structural improvements, but it is not our government’s job to provide for all people.

However, since the State Department took over implementing USAID, the program has become increasingly inefficient since it has focused on the political aspects. Perhaps the federal government is not always the best group to manage worldwide economic aid. In his article on fixing foreign aid, Paul Brinkley explains, “Diplomats are not program executors. The culture of diplomacy, so crucial to negotiation and resolution of conflict, is completely wrong for managing economic development programs. Much less the tactical business development necessary for economic growth.”

Brinkley would likely agree that funding independent charity organizations and humanitarian missions is a better use of foreign aid money. These groups work year after year and target countries for non-political reasons, giving aid where it is truly needed. This is something that the government has difficulty achieving when the president changes every four years. With a new executive comes a new approach to aiding and influencing those countries. Without a common goal and general guidelines, their actions are uncoordinated and result in abrupt changes in policy execution. This is especially true for military aid since intervention is often controversial during times of war or violence. If politics dictates aid, the government could easily become overinvolved with foreign aid and lose sight of the needs of the people to be served.

Many experts would argue that the government needs an unchanging, realistic, and effective approach to foreign aid. The only way to accomplish this is to enact laws that limit foreign intervention, thereby saving funds for domestic growth. Such law would state firstly that non-military aid should be conducted by private missions and humanitarian groups, but funded by USAID. Secondly, military aid should never include American troops and it should only be given to a country under duress. Finally, disaster relief and post-war reconstruction aid should never be used as a tool to democratize a weak and unstable country.

Using the current Ukraine crisis as an illustrative case-study, under this proposed system, the United States would remain neutral until there is an act of overt, state-directed violence. If tensions escalate to the point of state-directed violence, the United States can choose to send any form of aid besides American troops with the goal of protecting people, not governments. Therefore, intervention is not necessary so long as the lives of Ukrainian citizens are not in grave danger. The United States government must define the line between political unrest and serious oppression. In this case, the struggle between democracy and autocracy may be healthy for the progress of the nation. This is why the government must only give aid when the people are in danger and the government is unable or unwilling to provide.

In dealing with foreign aid, a proper balance and clear purpose is essential for success. The United States is in great need of legislation that limits the executive power to intervene beyond the necessary measures. If the purpose of aid is to strengthen economic stability and provide for people in need, then politics should be distanced from aid. Democratization blinds government leaders by convincing them that democracy is the only way to stability and worldwide stability is imperative to national defense. If the U.S. government improves its means of implementing aid and ends its attempts to democratize, the United States can benefit not only the aid recipients but also the taxpayers who fund these programs.