Many people believe that international aid is an idea steeped in human rights and humanitarian lore. It is true that international aid lifts up the most impoverished and vulnerable people in society, but this is a very narrow idea of what international aid can accomplish. The fight against global poverty has evolved into not just one of providing basic human rights and necessities, but more importantly, one of national security. Impoverished states can explode in violence overnight, governments can collapse and throw countries into chaos, and alienated and desperate people can overthrow the rule of law. States affected by conflict can quickly devolve into breeding grounds for environmental devastation, human trafficking, spreading of disease, and—most importantly—terrorism. By serving disenfranchised people, helping to rebuild communities, and working to create stability around the globe, the United States enhances its influence in the global community while also protecting its domestic and national security interests.
In fact, the conflicts in Syria and Africa have led to an overall decline in global peace, making 2018 the tenth consecutive year of deterioration of world peace. These past ten years defy a trend of increasing stability and peace that stretches back to the end of World War II. The Global Peace Index blames a steep rise in terrorism, the impact of violence stemming from civil wars, and the number of refugees as key contributors to the decline in global peace. These factors result from a lack of governance, stability, and the pillars of peace such as social inclusion, transparency, and distribution of resources. However, it is important to note that the study also points out that countries can bounce back from war, given the opportunity. By using U.S. agencies such as USAID, the State Department, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation to help countries get back on their feet, international aid can stem violence, curb corruption, empower citizens, and ultimately lead to stability.
In the face of a weak foreign assistance structure and civilian capacity, the military must often step into an oversight and managerial role. In fact, from 2002 through 2005, the Department of Defense significantly expanded its direct provision of foreign assistance in weak and failing states. By placing the burden on the military to help solve international strife, it taxes an already overburdened organization and places it in a role it was never equipped to handle. Having soldiers instead of aid workers on the ground can strain not only the mission, but also the relationship between the citizens and the military who are trying to help. After all, citizens would feel more empowered towards maintaining peace if aid organizations help them rebuild their towns and cities after violence than if a foreign military takes control.
Furthermore, civil war often creates an environment where terrorism can thrive. Although there are an infinite number of factors as to why someone might join a jihadist group, war acts as a definite pull factor. As seen in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, and many more countries, conflicts often either birth terrorist movements or strengthen existing ones. ISIS often successfully captured territory where the Syrian government was weak or non-existent, using the void left by the government to establish itself as a legitimate alternative for the Syrian people. Using the military in this gap-filling tendency in foreign interventions would not only tax an overstretched military by having it play a role it was not trained to undertake, but would also serve to undermine investments in civilian capacity building.
Instead, it would be more prudent for our national security strategy to include more foreign aid and collaborations with international aid agencies to ensure that peace can be more than a pipe dream. International aid presents numerous advantages, not just for the citizens receiving aid, but also for U.S. interests and solidifying alliances. For example, following the deadly bombings in Tanzania in 1998, where U.S. embassies were destroyed and lives were lost, USAID came in and helped the Tanzanians rebuild. The Ambassador of Tanzania believed that the work that USAID performed and the compassion they showed towards the Tanzanian people was crucial in building the alliance the U.S. enjoys to this day.
With hard power being spread increasingly thinner among states and non-state actors like ISIS, the U.S. needs a national security strategy that recognizes and embraces the concept of aid over bullets and takes a more humanitarian approach to aiding our fellow man. By focusing on international aid, it can help alleviate some of the drivers of insecurity and desperation. Not only does helping the poor gain access to medicine, shelter, food, education, and opportunity help Americans sleep better at night, but it also allows the U.S. to reinforce its influence worldwide, protect its citizens, and create a safer global network.