The “Zero Base” Republican Field

November 22nd’s GOP foreign policy debate presented a shocking (or not so shocking) display of ignorance and lack of foresight in regard to U.S. international aid. The candidates, except Jon Huntsman, all called for a “base zero” approach to foreign aid, a policy that would require foreign nations to make their case to the United States in return for economic and military aid. Such a proposition is myopic and inflammatory, and unsuitable for a presidential candidate.

Governor Huntsman was right when he said that Rick Perry’s zero base aid idea is “sound bite campaigning.” How can the GOP candidates actually believe that starting all countries at zero aid is a good idea? Does this not harm our standing internationally? Do they not realize that we must build our global alliances, not break them?

According to the candidates, this is how it would work: the U.S. takes all foreign aid and cuts it to zero. Then, the federal government hears appeals from other nations and, on a case by case basis, determines how much aid should be allocated. Republicans did not stipulate who would be making the allocation decisions, or by what standards the decisions would be made. Herman Cain spoke for the entire GOP field when he said he didn’t know enough about the subject to give a solid answer.

There is a plethora of problems with a zero base approach to international aid. Starting at zero and forcing nations to make a case before the U.S. sends a signal that America is willing to exhibit conditional leadership on a global level. By stripping assistance to other countries, we are saying, “Sure we might be willing to stop your genocide, feed your hungry children, or educate your population, but let’s see what you can offer us first. Prove to us you REALLY need our help.” Since when did the United States become so callous on an international scale? Are we really going to make Sudan plead for the $1.2 billion we give in economic aid to help its suffering citizens? I heard Zimbabwe is doing really well these days — let’s make them beg for the $286 million we give them each year.*

Trust me, I completely understand the argument against foreign aid. We have enough debt in our country as it is, and we shouldn’t be squandering funds abroad. Let’s bring that money back to the states and invest it in the economy. There is some merit to that position, but it is important to acknowledge America’s role as a global leader when taking a position on international aid. Not every country is able to give a substantial return to the U.S., and we cannot base our aid on how much a country matters to us as a country. Some nations just need help.

In the increasingly globalized world in which we live — a world that thrives on complex international networking — the United States cannot afford to sever important global alliances and friendships. By cutting funding to all nations and making them present their case we are coming across as close minded, weak and irresponsible. Zeroing aid displays a blatant disregard for humanity and cooperation, and puts key relationships at risk. Rick Perry conceded that even Israel would have to be content with no funding — how can we expect to maintain a stable rapport with Israel while cutting its aid to nothing at the same time?

The international aid distributed by the United States serves many functions. It acts as a life buoy for states floundering on the edge of destruction; it helps foster burgeoning democracies in previously autocratic nations; and it works to maintain stability in shaken regions such as the Middle East and North Africa. Rescinding U.S.  foreign aid does nothing but upset the balance of peace and power in the world, while at the same time painting the United States as dispassionate and unsympathetic. The Republican candidates often portray President Obama as an individual devoid of leadership skills; they say that they have the leadership mentality necessary to bring the U.S. back to superpower status. But what kind of leader cuts ties to allies and threatens essential relationships by zeroing out all foreign aid and determining it instead on a case by case basis?

It is necessary for the GOP (sans Jon Huntsman; he knows the importance of foreign aid) to reevaluate their assessment of the American narrative. If it does not include assistance to allies, aid to suffering countries, the spread of democracy, or global leadership, then they should all just drop out now.


*Funding statistics courtesy of the U.S. Census:

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