The American people are justifiably alarmed at the rise of ISIS and their unspeakable atrocities that are further destabilizing parts of the Middle East. The threats to our allies in the region like Israel and Jordan are real, as is the potential for terrors attacks here on American soil.
But the hard truth is that these terror threats staring us square in the eye cannot be resolved by military power alone – nor can it end the cycle of other security-related challenges occurring in Ukraine, the South China Sea and in parts of Central America, just to name a few.
The important lessons we learned in our military careers is that countering the threats to our nation require comprehensive responses that utilize all our elements of national power – military and non-military. An indispensable part of the non-military toolkit is foreign aid – one of the least appreciated and yet vital means for advancing America’s interests around the world.
Today’s battles require melding our military power with civilian efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and support the creation of well-functioning governance systems and civil society, build infrastructure, coalesce diverse nations around common goals, and promote economic development. In short, everything that is necessary to improve the long-term prospects of a nation and keep extremists from exploiting misery and desperation.
These lessons were made clear after World War II. Through the Marshall Plan and the creation of Bretton Woods institutions, the United States helped to rebuild the economies of our former enemies on the battlefield, Germany and Japan, who are now strong and valuable contributors to the global economy and security. The same holds true for South Korea. None of this came cheap or easy, but we’ve reaped the rewards through decades of peace and stability in these regions. More recently, American-led initiatives in Colombia and the Balkans have made significant progress in bringing stability and economic growth after years of conflict.
The recent status of forces agreement between the United States and Afghanistan is a good first step toward creating stability and prosperity in Afghanistan, which is in our vital national interest. Our efforts will be led by the State Department in diplomacy and USAID and other civilian agencies in helping to strengthen governance, rebuild the economy and educational systems, and move farmers away from growing poppies. These are roles our diplomatic services and development agencies, with the support of our military, are best equipped to play.
For all these reasons, our nation, at long last, needs to reject misguided narratives that question the value of foreign aid. The opinion polls consistently showing the American people favor cutting and even eliminating foreign aid are deeply troubling – and are often based on wildly inflated estimates of what we spend in the first place: one percent of the federal budget.
Make no mistake, the money spent on these programs can save countless dollars and lives by averting more costly military involvement and humanitarian crises. That’s why we see these programs as the difference between preventative care and trauma care. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates memorably said, “Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.”
The world has changed dramatically since the Cold War when we began our military service, and so have the threats confronting our nation. That’s why we must employ all the means of American influence and power, including strong and effective foreign aid. We’re confident the return on that investment is an essential contribution to our national security.
General Anthony Zinni, USMC (Ret.) is the former Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command. Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.) is former NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Europe and Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Both are co-chairs of the National Security Advisory Council of the US Global Leadership Coalition, a broad-based coalition of more than 400 businesses and NGOs that supports a smart power foreign policy.