The new Congress should conduct a top to bottom review of U.S. foreign assistance
By Daniel F. Runde
In this age of great power competition, the U.S. needs to conduct a thorough review of its soft power initiatives. The new Congress hasthe opportunity to institute a Congressional Advisory Commission to carry out a top-to-bottom review of our foreign assistance and the effectiveness of our soft power tools. There is bipartisan interest in fixing how our assistance operates, albeit for different reasons.
Great power competition is not taking place in Washington D.C., Beijing, and Moscow. Instead, it is unfolding in places such as Dakar, Guatemala City, Jakarta, Kiribati, Kyiv, and Tashkent. Competition is manifesting itself through competition for vaccines, controlling the digital rails of the future, and infrastructure financing in developing countries. Competition between the U.S., China, and Russia will be determined by which is a more reliable partner, both through trade and by providing solutions that further the aspirations of developing nations.
The current aid architecture of the United States needs serious attention. In a sad example of bipartisanship in foreign aid, the relationship between the executive and legislative branches is broken regardless of which party controls Congress or the Executive Branch. “Congressional directives” decide where almost all of foreign aid funds are decided years in advance. This makes it nearly impossible for most of the over 20 agencies conducting foreign aid programs with hundreds of priorities and the need for “coherence in the executive” to effectively pivot from local need or emerging issue to another. Congress has little trust in any Administrations’ priority making or in the government’s procurement systems to move these monies. Both branches of government have not done enough to ensure the United States has the foreign assistance workforce it needs to lead and meet the challenges of today or in the future.
The current multilateral system and aid structures originated in the Cold War with several additions added on by the Bush 43 administration in response to 9/11 and health crises. The challenge of China and a resurgent Russia are similar to the challenges of the Cold War and require a radical rethinking of how and where the U.S. can allocate its people, time and money.
The last serious attempt to review our foreign assistance was in 2005 to 2007 with the HELP Commission, a Congressional Advisory Commission set up in partnership with the Bush Administration. The HELP Commission put together an excellent report which made serious recommendations and then was largely shelved. Nonetheless, today’s challenges require newfound attention on assistance spending with recommendations and actions updated to meet the current realities. The HELP’s Commission’s work concluded before COVID, the developing world’s cell phone revolution, the global financial crisis, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the ongoing “democracy recession,” Russia’s disruption of democracy and the rules-based order, and, most importantly, before the emergence of mainland China as a near peer competitor in economics and all dimensions of soft power.
Most of the recommendations of the HELP Commission came too late in the Bush Administration to implement and, apart from establishing a “DARPA for development” in the Obama Administration, were largely ignored.
A new Congressionally mandated commission should be established and be bipartisan. Such a commission could conduct its work in this 117th Congress, 2nd Session in the hopes the president elected in 2024 might work with Congress to take up the commission’s recommendations.
The commission could also be charged with evaluating and reforming existing authorities, such as the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, to meet current critical challenges in development such as combatting corruption, ensuring economic growth, managing the coming debt crisis, the youth bulge along with a wave in global aging in many parts of the developing world, ensuring the most reliable and cleanest energy possible and closing the digital divide.
Historically, major reforms of America’s soft power have happened partnership between the executive branch and the legislative branches including, “New Directions” under the Nixon Administration, “Enterprise Funds” under the Bush 41 Administration, The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) under the Clinton Administration, the Millenium Challenge Corporation and PEPFAR (in response to the HIV/AIDS global epidemic) under the Bush 43 Administration, and the BUILD Act under the Trump Administration.
The new Congress needs to set the groundwork now to work with the Biden Administration for the next 2 years but also to set the table for the next Administration to ensure that a series of responsible reforms in the context of the Great Powers Competition happens.
Daniel F. Runde is Senior Vice President and the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is also the author up the upcoming book The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership Through Soft Power ( Bombardier Books, Jan 17, 2023)