Democrats' diplomacy talk doesn't match deeds

The Baltimore Sun

Critics of the Bush administration have lambasted its alleged preference for using an aggressive military posture, including pre-emptive war, to conduct American foreign policy. These critics decry the loss of diplomacy in foreign affairs over the last six years.

One might assume that under the new congressional leadership, military funding would decrease or plateau, while allocations for "soft power," such as foreign assistance and diplomacy, would increase.

However, in seeming contradiction, Congress recently acquiesced to President Bush's demand to fully fund the Iraq war indefinitely and increased defense baseline spending to $481 billion.

Concurrently, with little fanfare, Congress slashed $1.2 billion from the already paltry international affairs budget, which funds the soft power of diplomacy, including the State Department budget, the Peace Corps, peacekeeping efforts in war-ravaged countries such as Sudan, AIDS prevention, development assistance for Third World countries, and much more.

Democrats like to trumpet the role of diplomacy in foreign policy, and to chide the irresponsible lack of it in the Bush administration. But this year, foreign assistance will not rise to global needs, secure our nation from future terrorism or improve international opinion of our nation. Detailed allocations for international affairs won't be revealed until later this month, but the likely target for the $1.2 billion cut is Mr. Bush's Millennium Challenge Corp., which is designed to create incentives for developing countries to continue to modernize.

Americans tend to believe that foreign aid is a much bigger portion of the budget than it is. A 2001 poll from the Programs on International Policy Attitudes asked Americans to estimate the percentage of federal spending on international aid; more than 50 percent of respondents estimated that international aid was 20 percent of total federal spending. They were tragically wrong; the international affairs budget accounts for a meager 1 percent.

Perhaps the most startling and drastic cut in funding this year is the one-third slashed from the development assistance portion of the international affairs budget. Development assistance enhances stability, improves security and encourages reform by promoting education, helping to establish gender equality, fostering anti-corruption measures and bringing electric power to extremely poor countries.

The fact is that global poverty, intractable civil wars, starvation and human injustice have not decreased over the past year to warrant a cut in federal foreign assistance. And there's no question that development assistance abroad hits home for us in America: Impoverished, disenfranchised societies are hotbeds for terrorist activities, global criminal enterprises, civil wars and economic catastrophes.

In this age of globalization, American spending on foreign aid is money invested in durable global security and stability.

Consider one solvable aspect of global poverty: electricity.

Today, 1.6 billion people do not have access to electricity and 2.4 billion employ traditional biomass fuels (such as wood) for everyday living - cooking, heating, etc. In developed countries where electricity is perceived as a basic human necessity - certainly not a luxury - it is difficult to comprehend that nearly 1 in 4 people lacks electricity. Four out of five of those without access to electricity live in rural areas in developing countries. In these regions, access to electricity is decreasing as the population rapidly increases.

There is a strong link between electrification and poverty reduction, educational development and socioeconomic progress. Consider the effect of electricity on a country's local, regional and national livelihood. Industrial activities, transportation, commerce, micro-enterprises, large-scale agriculture - all these aspects of a modern economy depend on access to electricity. Lack of it entrenches poverty, severely limits gender equity, and renders the delivery of social services nearly nonexistent. Consequently, significant opportunities for these countries to develop economically in the global market are negligible. And these socioeconomic circumstances encourage terrorist activities.

Developing countries cannot emerge from their Third World status without electricity. Under the policies and investment trends in energy infrastructure today, by 2030, 1.5 billion people will still be without electricity, according to a U.N. report.

We must provide adequate and meaningful foreign assistance to developing countries. The effects of turning a blind eye to the poor, the unempowered and the disenfranchised will have very severe consequences. Soft power will diminish these effects, yet we need proper funding to support these efforts.

It's too bad that when it comes to rhetoric about diplomacy and soft power, Democratic leaders in Congress have failed to put their money where their mouths are.

Perhaps the $1.2 billion cut from the international affairs budget could have been used to provide electricity to an African nation to help end the vicious cycle of poverty. But it won't be this year.

Olivia Albrecht, a Fox News contributor, is a doctoral fellow at the RAND Corp. Her e-mail is

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