A Vital Foreign Policy Tool Under Threat

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By Rabbi David A. Teutsch

The Book of Genesis proclaims that every human being is created in the image of God, that every human life is infinitely precious. Every religious person and every humanist understands that we are all diminished by needless loss of life. My heart breaks when I hear about people dying of starvation, of AIDS and other controllable diseases, or of deaths in childbirth that could be easily prevented. I cannot be indifferent to such human tragedy — and neither should our government.

The United States has the capacity to save lives around the world at a minimal cost to Americans — and yet, it is threatening to withdraw its help, despite the enormous good it can do.

When President Trump released his proposal for the 2018 federal budget this May, his plan slashed the foreign assistance budget, which currently comprises only 1 percent of federal expenditures. Foreign aid is just a drop in the bucket when compared to Social Security, Medicare and military spending.

Fortunately, the fate of the U.S. budget has yet to be finalized, and there is still time to preserve the critical foreign aid programs that embody the values so many of us hold dear — that all human life is precious. As Congress debates the budget this fall, I hope they will consider the value of opening our hands to people in need around the world.

Why is foreign assistance important? Here are five reasons:

  1. It saves countless lives by providing food and health aid in the poorest countries in the world.
  2. It is a major way of generating goodwill for the United States around the globe and for building relationships that are critical to U.S. diplomacy.
  3. It strengthens the international commitment to democracy and equal rights.
  4. It helps local populations reduce the economic causes of insurgencies, which are a significant threat to world stability.
  5. It helps protect embattled minorities.

Foreign assistance plays a vital role in combating global poverty, the deadly effect of natural disasters and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It also strengthens world health systems. The shortage of inexpensive medicines is a cause of death for hundreds of thousands every year.  

Diplomacy, foreign assistance and military spending are the three pillars of American foreign policy. Weakening foreign assistance necessarily diminishes the American government’s effectiveness as a world power and increases the risk of war. China, Iran and Russia are three nations that have stepped up their presence through gifts, loans and military expansion, weakening the U.S. presence in key strategic areas such as the Middle East and Southeast Asia, as well as in Africa.

Foreign assistance is a relatively inexpensive way to ensure a favorable balance of power in the world. It would require a huge increase in military spending to make up for the loss of influence that flows through foreign assistance. Also, increasing the effectiveness of the United Nations also requires an engaged U.S. presence.

Cutting foreign aid would also mean the reduction of our voice for democracy, freedom of worship, and the rights of women and of LGBT people.

Wonderful not-for-profit organizations such as American Jewish World Service and CARE need to be able to count on partnership with the U.S. government if they are to have their full impact in South America, Africa and Asia. Ensuring that foreign assistance stays at least at current levels within the federal budget is an investment that will pay back handsomely in its impact on people’s lives, on world stabilization and on the influence of the U.S. around the globe.

Our senators and representatives need to hear from us that foreign assistance should be strengthened in the 2018 budget. Each of us can help save lives and build a more just and equitable world.

Rabbi David A. Teutsch is a professor emeritus of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he formerly served as president.