SOME DAY, foreign aid will come back in style. Washington will then donate funds to jump start the world's poorest economies, for the sake of helping them to self-sustaining growth. If the United States is still the richest country, it will give more than any other, at the same rate as smaller prosperous countries. In return, the United States will receive, if not always gratitude, tremendous influence in shaping its world.
Meanwhile, foreign aid is out of style. Less than 1 percent of the budget President Clinton recommends would go for it, and Congress won't let him have that. He properly vetoed a foreign aid bill from which Congress pared $2 billion to leave $12.6 billion.
Even the president is not seeking to restore foreign aid for self-sustaining economic growth. Such aid got a bad name in the 1980s. It was not always effective. It never was all that altruistic, largely going through U.S. consultants to enlarge opportunities for U.S. businesses. Much aid that works best is channeled through such multinational institutions as the World Bank as concessionary loans, leveraging more funds from other donors.
But Japan gave more than the United States, and for its own advantage. Small countries of Northern Europe give more per capita and more as a percent of gross national product. Generous, we never were.
Whoever says Uncle Sap gives the store away has been snoozing the past two decades. The reality is that Uncle Scrooge hardly gives.
What Congress pared from President Clinton's budget was the carrot of carrot-and-stick diplomacy. (That's where the big power intimidates on the one hand and tempts with the other.) No wonder Mr. Clinton called it "isolationist."
What Congress does not want President Clinton to do is live up to U.S. commitments under the Wye agreement, to help the embryonic Palestinian state get off the ground in the interest of peace, Israel's security and the well-being of its citizens.
The United States took heat for bombing economic infrastructure in Yugoslavia. Congress wants to cut President Clinton's ability to start reconstruction there.
The United States uses aid to pry open economies that are closed to U.S. business. Congress would curtail this.
What's going on is the opposite of nationalism. Congress is reducing even the foreign aid that the Reagan administration wanted as a tool to extend U.S. influence. Why Congress wants to reduce U.S. influence in the world defies understanding. It's an inside-the-Capital-Beltway thing.