Patsy Cline’s country music song “Stop The World and Let Me Off” makes for good lyrics, but not foreign policy.
A recent poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC found the majority of Americans want to pull back from the world stage. After 20-plus years of wars and unproductive foreign interventions, perhaps there’s a good case for no longer wasting blood and treasure on other nations’ problems. We can, and maybe should, stop playing the part of the world police. But we live in an increasingly globalized world and, like it or not, we can’t get off.
Before we withdraw wholesale into our America First shell, let’s try to distinguish between our failed military incursions, drug wars and other exercises in force, on the one hand, and the benefits we all gain from engaging the world on the humanitarian front, as members of the same planetary community.
Those of us in the Northwest have a lot at stake when it comes to being good neighbors to the world. Not only are we already tremendously integrated globally through trade – in airplanes, coffee and software – we also have one of the largest humanitarian sectors in the country. We have literally hundreds of organizations large and small, and thousands of employees working around the globe who are dedicated to making the world a better place for everyone. We think this work makes for a better, safer and more humane world. We don’t want to get off; we want on.
Unfortunately, a common misconception by most Americans is that we already spend too much on foreign aid. That’s just wrong. This year’s budget request for USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) shows that our government plans to spend $9.7 billion providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Compare that with the $633 billion going to the Department of Defense. Our government’s spending on humanitarian assistance amounts to about 1.5% of what we spend on defense.
This is a huge miscarriage of priorities and a terrible misrepresentation of our values here in the Northwest. As incredible as it may sound, the U.S. government’s defense budget will cost the citizens of King County nearly $6 billion this year, according to the National Priorities Organization. Compare that with the $82 million we are on the hook for when it comes to government spending on humanitarian assistance – about $4 per person, or a latte-and-a-half. So no, we don’t spend much on aid.
Some may think we need to spend that much on defense in order to keep us safe. But what sows the seeds of war? Many, if not most, conflict stems from lack of opportunity, inequity and poverty. Guns can’t solve these problems. History shows that better governments, schools and health care facilities – as well as fair laws and economic development – can and do. That does take boots on the ground. But not camouflage boots; what helps make us all safer are those boots overseas filled by the hard-working, compassionate, smart and dedicated people who demonstrate that Americans do see themselves as responsible global citizens.
The good news is that, in addition to the $4 we in King County contribute in taxes to fund our relatively tiny government aid budget, we as individuals also voluntarily support hundreds of local and national organizations working around the world.
Every year, tens of thousands of Americans go overseas to help people who don’t have a fraction of the opportunity that we take for granted. Think about that for a moment. While our department stores buy the clothes that we wear from some of the poorest countries in the world, some of your neighbors – maybe even your children – are in those same countries trying to supply clean water, build schools and make communities safer for women and children. Just think what they could accomplish if they had only a small portion of the military’s budget to help them.
Some estimate the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will cost us $6 trillion. If just a fraction of those dollars were being spent on improving conditions where people struggle at the margins of life, we might actually see a world that’s much safer than the one we’ve helped to create through years of wars and weapon sales. What the world’s people want from Americans is a shining example of freedom and mutual respect. They want an example of what they can strive for and hope for in their own futures. We may have forgotten the importance of being a good role model.
So, as weary as we all may be of the drama of war, let’s tell our elected officials that we in the Great Northwest support the good work we can do. Let them know we still believe in being positively engaged in the job of creating a safer, healthier, more equitable world. A world in which everyone, everywhere, can dream of building a better life for themselves and their families.