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Pragmatic Overdose

Ethics and creativity are stifled in the draft U.S. development policy.

By Evan O'Neil | June 22, 2010

CREDIT: B. S. Wise (CC).

We like to think our presidents have everything under control. They like us to think so, too. But really their short times in office amount to a collage of ad hoc reactions to overlapping concerns and emergencies. By drift or by design a Doctrine can emerge, shaping the ethics of a president's foreign policy.

The Obama administration is in the design phase with its Presidential Study Directive on global development, calling for "A New Way Forward." A leaked draft of the policy review indicates that American development funding should "reinforce the universal values we aim to advance." Yet the administration is doing little to examine its values or whether they are accepted globally.

Security Should Not Define Development

Obama's advisors want to energize U.S. development policy by framing it in terms of American national security, calling development a "strategic imperative." This makes it sound important, but in reality it will backfire. The common wisdom is that poverty breeds instability. The problem is that scarce development dollars are not necessarily best spent in conflict zones. In fact, American development policy is hampered by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, which attract a disproportionate share of expertise and resources. These three countries are nowhere near the wealth threshold above which democracies tend to stabilize. They would be risky development investments even without conflict. The tradeoff is thus development projects where they might better flourish.

The other big risk is that development policy carried out for national security will be seen as inflexible and manipulative.

Despite this policy overstretch, there is an encouraging note of realism in the new administration's approach. They are looking to developing countries to take "ownership" of their own development plans. Obama's team also wants to focus on "countries and sub-regions where conditions are right for sustained progress." The logic is that it is more effective to consolidate democratic and economic gains in emerging market countries, and to curtail support for long-time recipients of U.S. foreign aid that have made little or no progress in clean governance.

Diplomatic Innovations

But national security can't be the only way to sell a development policy. A less cynical way to frame the new way forward would be through a narrative of public diplomacy, cultural identity, fair trade, and green energy innovation. America's structural position as a military and economic power, and its identity as the immigrant nation par excellence, locks it into a global commitment. Thus the ethical contours of that commitment must be clearly defined.

The need for better public diplomacy is driven by the explosion of information and communication technologies and the transparency they engender. As my colleague Joshua S. Fouts points out, no amount of political spin can save a country from being judged by its actions. International relations going forward must be about authentic dialogue, not information (or actual) warfare.

And where in this global dialogue does the United States have a cultural motivation to spend its development budget? Perhaps the developing countries with which the United States has deep immigration relationships deserve the bulk of the funding, for example Mexico, Central America, China, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam. Boosting development funding to immigrant partners will help balance the economic pressures that often disrupt social relations on both ends of the exchange. The human rights connection is important here, as workers are kept at a disadvantage wherever they are discouraged from joining labor unions.

Fair Trade Frees Everyone

Following security and democratization, economic growth is the other major goal of the new development policy. This is a highly contested aspect of American foreign policy. For example, former president Bill Clinton apologized this year for trade policies that eviscerated Haiti's ability to produce food for consumption or export. One has to hope that Secretary of State Clinton is swapping ideas with him.

Yet the policy review sounds a little stale when it asserts that economic growth is the "only sustainable way to eradicate poverty." First, their version of sustainability has nothing to do with the environment—it just means sustained growth. Technological advances and economic activity certainly improve living standards. But ethical problems arise when growth is worshipped without qualification, and when private parties bend national power to their sole advantage; hence, pure growth is an unreliable metric for diplomacy and development and should be downplayed.

Free trade fundamentalists like to tout the virtues of a level playing field. This metaphoric nod to fairness only makes sense if all players are equally matched. As economist Kevin Gallagher points out, the Obama administration has done little to make trade fairer, and has instead continued the Bush era policy of negotiating bilaterally with developing countries.

Green Diplomacy

Another missed opportunity is the administration's inattention to international environmental problems. Specifically, the emergent ethic of Green Diplomacy—using development policy to build renewable energy infrastructure—holds great promise in light of the BP oil spill, especially with regional countries that might be affected. Such projects would tie in well with a revival of public diplomacy.

The United States also has to make up lost ground after failing to bring a globally acceptable emissions reduction plan to the table at the UN negotiations in Copenhagen last December. While that process plods on it would be sensible for the administration to demonstrate its commitment to environmental diplomacy on other fronts, such as marine and forest conservation.

New Values, Not New Bureaucracy

As it stands, Obama's "New Way Forward" is more bureaucratic shuffle than fresh ethical vision—coordination between departments is necessary, but not sufficient. His team must dig deeper into the fault lines of American foreign policy and take advantage of a crucial chance to redefine America's global engagement.

We won't see a new way forward until the United States views other nations as equal peers in the quest to realize a good life, instead of treating them as instruments in pursuit of American national security or favorable trade. To achieve this, the State Department must stake out its own values—beneficial immigration flows, fair trade, and regional green energy innovation—instead of cutting turf from Defense and other departments.


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