Categorized | Economics, United States

Foreign Aid in the Obama Administration: A Wobbly Stool

Four days after President Obama took the oath of office, his new Secretary of State stated boldly that she would welcome dissent. Well, I’m going to take Secretary Clinton at her word. Mrs. Clinton has it dead wrong in her concept of how to organize America’s foreign aid system.

Addressing her new State Department staff for the first time in early January, Secretary Clinton used an oft-cited simile for American foreign policy: the three-legged stool. By this she meant that a sturdy U.S. foreign policy framework, like a sturdy stool, needs three legs. These legs consist, alliteratively, of defense, diplomacy and development, or foreign aid. In this logic, our nation requires, first, a strong deterrent military force; second, an active bilateral and multilateral diplomacy; and, third, a substantial American commitment to improving poor people’s lives, to address the underlying causes of conflict and terrorism, reflected in our foreign aid program.

That’s all well and good. This basic simile comports with the strategic thinking of many foreign policy analysts, and reflects the commitments President Obama made while still on the campaign trail.

But, after that reasonable beginning, she veered off into “dead wrong” territory by stating that the State Department should be responsible for “two of the three legs:” diplomacy and development. That reflects exactly the thinking of the departed Bush Administration, which weakened the nation’s foreign aid capacity during its time in Washington. And, regrettably, Mrs. Clinton’s comments followed the flawed logic that led to the absorption of the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department two administrations ago, with catastrophic consequences for America’s image abroad.

The correct policy is to have a vibrant American foreign policy system consisting three core, complementary elements: A strong Department of Defense tasked with fighting and winning the nation’s wars; a strong State Department, strengthened and active in diplomacy; and, a much strengthened and reinvigorated United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to serve as the nation’s leading development tool, and address poverty and inequality before they lead to violence. It is this “three-legged stool” that will ensure that President Obama has the set of tools he needs to conduct a vigorous foreign policy. And, with Mr. Obama still not having named a leader for the U.S. Agency for International Development four months into his presidency, it is this stool that is wobbly, indeed.

Mrs. Clinton, I fear, has listened too closely to the faint-hearted at the State Department who, buffeted during the Bush Administration by over-reliance on military rather than diplomatic tools, feel the need to buttress their bureaucratic position by absorbing USAID. Our nation has fine, highly skilled and dedicated diplomats, and we need many more of them. But these skilled and courageous officers know little about rebuilding war-torn societies; delivering food aid; building health clinics and schools that will last; opening economic opportunities for poor women; responding to tsunamis; increasing agricultural yields; and the thousand and one other skill sets that USAID has been providing for America for six decades, when USAID’s work was critical to winning the Cold War.

Naturally, diplomacy and development, as well as defense, must be coordinated, and I have every expectation that Secretary Clinton and her team can devise appropriate bureaucratic coordination mechanisms. But, it would be the height of irony if, after the Bush Administration diminished the role of USAID over the past eight years, the Obama Administration would follow that path to its reductio ad absurdum, further diminish USAID, and create a wobbly two-legged foreign policy structure.

Secretary Clinton is a strong leader. She should be strong enough to review her “I’m in charge of two legs of the stool” comment, and recommend the following to President Obama: “Mr. President, we need world-class defense, diplomacy, and development implements to conduct America’s foreign policy, and I promise you unparalleled diplomatic leadership. I am recommending you dramatically increase the capacity of USAID, name a prominent person to the leadership of USAID, and invite that person, the Secretary of Defense, and me to your cabinet meetings. That way, Mr. President, you will be receiving diverse, but informed, military, diplomatic, and development perspectives whenever there is a foreign policy problem. And, Mr. President, America will be stronger for it.”

  • bob randolph

    Dear Jim,

    I very much enjoyed reading your thoughtful comment.

    Bob Randolph

  • Charlie Flickner

    Jim, Thanks for having the courage to break the starnge silence about this anticipated disaster to US foreign policy.

    Charlie Flickner

  • Bob Lester

    Jim’s comments are right on point. For the State Department, development is an afterthought. The Department was established to do diplomacy not to formulate development strategies nor to design and implement development programs. That’s not why State Department personnel are hired–it’s why USAID personnel are hired. The USG has suffered from having too many agencies working on economic assistance overseas. To have the State Department in the lead compounds that problem and puts the agency with the least expertise in charge. In 1961, the aid agency was established to address these very same questions. Too bad the administration seems to be marching backwards on this issue. Good job, Jim.

  • Elysia Rudite

    Here, here!

  • Charles Uphaus

    I appreciate your comments, which are very much in line with our thinking here at Bread for the World.

  • 15 year USAID foreign service officer

    Jim- thank you for speaking out. You are 100% correct and we should all be very very concerned. I only wish you could have done more along these lines as Deputy Administrator, though we know you were severely constrained by the Administration you served. Please keep fighting for us now.

  • Francisco Zamora, V.P. USAID American Foreign Service Association

    Congratulations of an extremely well-written article regarding the clearly illogical direction Secretary Clinton seems to favor for our foreign assistance programs. Forcing USAID to operate under the thumb of the State Department was the previous Administration’s mistake and it does not seem smart to perpetuate the errors of the past. Numerous high quality analyses by world-class experts have concluded that Foreign Assistance must be rationalized and consolidated under an independant agency (a cabinet level department perhaps) which has equal standing with Diplomacy and Defense. We have the best Diplomats and Military Leaders in the world but they are not development experts. This is the time to get things right and that is by strengthening not weakening USAID.

  • film

    Thank you very much for this information.
    Good post thanks for sharing.

  • Amb. (ret) Lewis Lucke

    Jim–you have it exactly right. The last administration veered off course by putting greater financial and operational control of USAID and its development function under State. The current one indeed seems to be compounding the problem. USAID should be grown and strengthened as an institution. This is how we enhance the role and effectiveness of development as a vital strategic tool for the US. The failure to name a USAID Administrator is telling.

  • Bill Stuebner

    Jim Kunder is one of the finest public servants I have ever met. This piece shows him as a truly non-partisan advocate of what he honestly feels is best for America. Good job Jim! I hope someone will listen.

  • Mike Jackson

    This article cannot in any way be construed as non-partisan primarily because of politically slanted factual innacuracies and outright mistatements. First, we should correct the factual innacuracies of the article: foreign aid, specifically aid for neglected diseases and to Africa (not related to military or defense) was actually increased by more than 50% under the Bush administration. USAID budgets alone more than doubled from 2002 through the end of the Bush administration. In 2001-2002, Bush put in place the MCC which recieved most of the short run funding increase primarily for two reasons: the first budget that the Bush administration would have been able to affect post 9/11 would have been the FY 2002 and because of deep cuts in USAID personnel during the Clinton administration, USAID was in no condition to mount any meaningful, large scale effort in Iraq or Afghanistan. This suggests that Ms. Clinton’s position, if it is in fact to absorb USAID into State which there is substantial evidence to the contrary, is in fact consistent with the policies of her husband’s administration, the current leadership at State who largely came from her husband’s administration and is therefore not some carryover from the much maligned Bush II administration. the third factual effort, or at least implied factual error, is that the US military is somehow a jonny come lately to nation building and development. According to current US Assistant Secretary for Defense and Planning, Janine Davidson, the US military has been engaged in national building and development activities since at least the late 19th century. Factual errors aside, couching the policy positions outlined herein as somehow materially republican vs. democratic in terms of administration only politicizes an issue which in no way should be politicized. It creates political enemies for the agency when it does not need them because it distorts the picture for essentially political gain and leverage. In the end, a strong USAID is not a republican or democrat position. It is in all our interests and such politicization serves none of the interest of the American people, only of a narrow group of party elites intent on holding on to power at any cost.

    which given the deplorable state of USAID at the end of the Clinton administration which had cut the organization’s manpower down to levels which made USAID assuming any leadership in Iraq or Afghanistan practically impossible

  • Barbara Turner


    Wow! You’ve nailed it!!!

    Two and a half legs won’t position the U.S. for the world we live in today.
    Thanks for sticking your neck out.

  • Current FSO

    Excellent article…
    USAID indeed will go the way of USIS although it will give the Department of bit of indigestion as it takes USAID in, much more so than USIS. If we ask ourselves are we any better served, respected by-in-large by our allies or understood by others in the years since USIS and its activities were dismantled by the State Department…the answer is a resounding no.

    State usually has a short term approach to issues and is not in the business nor does it understand as an organization development. But as far as a reinvigorated U.S. development agency is concerned in the future…State will never give up what it percieves to be its real cash cow which it will use for short term political objectives. As for USAID demise as an idependent agency….this cow too, is out of the barn.

  • Yasuko Benzee

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