The Circular Logic of Allies and Assistance

Rick Perry’s brief presidential run will likely be remembered for the candidate’s physical and verbal awkwardness as well as his memorable debate gaffe when he could not remember the three federal agencies he sought to abolish. Perry’s campaign was not particularly memorable from a policy or governance standpoint, but he made one statement that reveals the deep gap between foreign policy elites and the rest of America. When asked about how he would determine foreign assistance budgets, Perry said, “you ought to start off at zero and say, explain to me why I should give you a penny.”

This comment was the type of statement that seems appallingly naive to foreign policy elites across the political spectrum, but seems like good common sense to many ordinary Americans also across the political spectrum. Perry’s argument was indeed somewhat naive. Foreign assistance cannot be determined annually; the foreign policy infrastructure is significantly more complex than Perry’s statement suggests; and foreign assistance flows through numerous government agencies requiring a lengthy and time consuming budgeting process. Nonetheless, Perry’s core point that the U.S. should only give money to countries that can make a compelling argument for that assistance seems like a reasonably straightforward framework for foreign assistance.

The problem with Perry’s approach is that it does not reflect the actual causal links underlying foreign policy. Intuitively, one would think that the logic of foreign policy is that countries that are either friendly, valuable strategically, or otherwise important to the U.S. should become allies and, if they need it, receive foreign assistance. In this model, foreign assistance is the result of an alliance. This would be a reasonable guideline for foreign assistance, and was probably originally how assistance decisions were made.

Today, however, this order is largely reversed. Instead of foreign countries receiving assistance because they are allies, in much of the world, including large parts of Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, foreign countries are U.S. allies because they receive foreign assistance. Thus, for non-wealthy countries, receiving U.S. assistance is what defines that country as an American ally. To a large extent, the alliance has become the result of the assistance, rather than the other way around.

This situation has emerged from decades of foreign assistance, the evolution of numerous governmental and semi-governmental organizations committed to delivering foreign assistance, and a view in Washington that it is almost axiomatically in the interest of the U.S. to be deeply involved in other countries. Foreign assistance is what secures this involvement, so for a foreign country, the act of refusing assistance, which does not occur too frequently, is a hostile gesture, while accepting foreign assistance is taken in Washington as a sign of friendship on the part of a foreign government.

This is obviously bad fiscal policy because it creates an incentive for the government to give foreign assistance to as many countries as possible. More significantly, it makes it very difficult for the U.S. to cut another country off from foreign assistance because that country is an ally, not because of what it does, but because it takes foreign assistance. Thus, the U.S. has backed itself into a rhetorical corner where we have to give money to a country because it is an ally; and the proof that it is an ally is that we give money to it.

The U.S. is a major donor country contributing money for different purposes in dozens of countries around the world. Given that, it would make sense for foreign assistance to be a tool which diplomats and policy makers can use to influence outcomes or send messages to other countries. However, in the current reality, in which allies are largely defined as such because they receive foreign assistance, it is increasingly difficult to use assistance as a tool of foreign policy.