OPINION: Why Melania’s Africa Trip Matters Here At Home

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Rob Palmer Air Force Reservist

First lady Melania Trump returned from Africa this week. And I, for one, was encouraged to see her first solo international mission went to four countries partnering with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) — Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt.

Throughout more than 30 years of service with the U.S. Air Force Reserve and National Guard, including several active duty deployments, I saw firsthand how my civilian counterparts overseas, those with the State Department and USAID, were delivering value far beyond what we initially invested — promoting stability in fragile states, building new economies for American goods, and making sure the next pandemic never reaches our shores.

So, it’s easy to understand why I joined more than 1,200 other military veterans this year in urging Congress to continue to invest in American diplomacy and development — alongside defense — which makes up just 1 percent of the federal budget.

I first deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of NATO-led peacekeeping forces. This experience shed light on the reality our nation faces on the world stage in order to advance our interests and values. We must continue to promote stability around the world — particularly in Africa.

A prominent example of this is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, commonly known as PEPFAR, through which the American people have helped combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the African continent (now marking it’s 15th year).

I was fortunate to witness much of PEPFAR’s groundbreaking work throughout Africa and while the mission of the program is straightforward, implementation in more than 85 countries requires individualized plans tailored to regional challenges and diverse viewpoints that vary from nation to nation.

In Botswana, a transient working-age population meant that many were either exposed to HIV or at-risk of contracting the disease. Thanks to PEPFAR’s targeted education and prevention campaign, Botswana is on a path toward a more stable workforce and thus a more productive economy — reducing the risk of destabilization.

Senegal’s challenge in combatting HIV/AIDS has been quite different. A major contributor to the African Union’s peacekeeping forces, Senegal plays an outsized role in promoting security across the continent.

But as we all know, sick soldiers cannot provide security and stability. Through PEPFAR, the United States partnered with Senegal to make sure testing, treatment and counseling is available for the Senegalese Armed Forces. And now, HIV prevention education is part of basic training.

These types of tailored solutions require America’s diplomats and development workers to collaborate with local leaders to identify challenges, design solutions and then work in cooperation to implement effective and accountable programs.

But PEPFAR’s programs aren’t simply working for Africa — they’re working for America, too. The success in Senegal shines a light on how our tax dollars overseas deliver benefits here at home. By fostering stability, it will be less likely that we, as Americans, will ever need to send our own sons and daughters into harm’s way — and our nation’s exports to Senegal are up more than 35 percent over the last decade.

As America further integrates with the global economy, our national security and domestic economic prosperity become even more deeply enmeshed. America cannot turn away from the world, without creating a void that our adversaries may step into.

Just last month, CIA Director Gina Haspel commented that China is “working to diminish U.S. influence.” Nowhere is this truer than in Africa — and it’s impacting both our security and our economic interests.

Through an aggressive $1-billion infrastructure-and-aid agenda known as its Belt and Road Initiative, China is gaining a foothold in developing economies and snapping up strategic assets — including buying the port that sits next to an American base in Djibouti.

These investments in development translate to regional influence for the Chinese government and market access for Chinese firms and products, and as we know the Chinese do not feel constrained to play fair or follow the rules of the road. These relationships risk crowding out American values and firms, undermining our own global competitiveness and interests.

And America is already falling behind. U.S. exports to Africa fell from $38 billion to $22 billion between over the last three years, while Chinese exports to Africa have grown exponentially. China is Africa’s single largest trading partner, overtaking the United States nearly a decade ago in 2009.

At a time when the stakes have never been higher, America’s leaders must not ask our diplomacy and development programs to operate with a hand tied behind their back. The American economy cannot afford to do nothing.

Ahead of her trip, the first lady told leaders gathered at the U.N. General Assembly, “When more people have opportunity, and when societies are freer and more democratic, our own country is safer and stronger.”

I trust her visit to Africa will only solidify her view on the importance of our nation’s civilian international affairs programs. American values are unique. We must continue to export them alongside our products and services. Investing in the International Affairs Budget is the most effective way to accomplish this, and for just pennies on the dollar.

Rob Palmer is an Air Force Reservist who was on active duty for 10 years and previously served as Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs for the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command. He is a member of the Air Force Association, the Military Officers Association of America, and the Reserve Officers Association. The opinions expressed are his own.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.