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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Not Fooling Anyone

During the Cold War, American strategy included not only military preparedness and action but also a battle for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world. American foreign assistance under the Marshall Plan helped stabilize democracy in Western Europe. Foreign aid to Japan, Korea and Taiwan provided a bulwark for strong market economies in East Asia.

With the waning of the Cold War in the 1980s and its end in the '90s, U.S. foreign assistance programs essentially collapsed, except in the Middle East. When aid is measured as a share of national income, the United States now ranks second from last among donors. More important, when it is measured as a share of recipient countries' populations and needs, U.S. assistance has dropped below the radar screen.

The virtual disappearance of U.S. foreign assistance as a tool of U.S. foreign policy in the past 20 years has had several dire effects. Money from fundamentalist groups in the Middle East has filled the void in Islamic parts of Africa and much of the Middle East and Central Asia, fomenting ethnic conflict and disdain for the United States. Moammar Gaddafi easily outbids the United States for the affections of important African politicians, as the United States is nowhere to be seen. And yet, when staunch U.S. ally and democrat Olusegun Obasanjo, president of Nigeria, came to Washington recently, U.S. President George W. Bush asked him for his continued help in the fight against terrorism even though this country gives almost no help to Nigeria in its own struggle for the very survival of democracy and stability.

Bush has said all the right things in recent weeks: that the war is not only a military one but also a war for global prosperity, and that U.S. security requires that the world's impoverished children be fed, educated and given health care. Yet the administration and Congress seem bereft of practical ideas to turn these flights of rhetoric into reality. Both Democrats and Republicans have picked at the carcass of foreign assistance for so long that they don't know what to do when the need arises to reactivate these programs.

U.S. pronouncements today about assistance are viewed as cheap and cynical gestures in impoverished countries where children are dying by the millions each year for lack of drugs, sanitation and basic nutrition. It may feel good for America to pledge $300 million to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, but every serious study has shown that billions of dollars, not millions, are needed from the United States. Our politicians are not fooling the world; they are only fooling Americans, and perhaps not even them any longer. We have the formal trappings of an aid program but nothing that meets the basic needs of U.S. security, much less of the millions dying every year because of our neglect.

This country is now so rich and has so many rich partners in Europe and Asia that we wouldn't have to do much, relative to our income, to accomplish an enormous amount of good. The Marshall Plan cost the United States more than 2 percent of GNP for several years. Now we don't even provide one-twentieth of that. If the United States raised its aid budget this year from less than one-tenth of 1 percent of GNP to two-tenths, we'd have an extra $10 billion to devote to disease control, primary education, clean water and other vital needs of impoverished places with strategic significance. That extra $10 billion would quickly leverage at least $20 billion more from the Europeans and Japanese. Only then would we start having an adequate strategy for fighting terrorism at its roots.

The United States voted a $1.6 trillion tax cut without raising a penny of foreign assistance. Now it is voting a $100 billion stimulus package without raising a penny of foreign assistance. And then the administration explains that the country doesn't have any more money to give.

There are solid ways of translating an extra $30 billion into millions of lives saved. Almost 3 million people die each year from diseases easily prevented by vaccination, but impoverished countries have had to cut their budgets for immunizations in the past decade. And to this date, U.S. assistance hasn't gotten even one poor person in the world on antiretroviral therapy for AIDS while 25 million people have died of the disease. American politicians should consider that grim truth in view of our own understandable response to anthrax and Cipro and should ponder its implications for the U.S. role and image in the world.

The tragic irony of this moment is that the rich countries are so rich and the poor so poor that a few added tenths of one percent of GNP from the rich ones ramped up over the coming decades could do what was never before possible in human history: ensure that the basic needs of health and education are met for all impoverished children in this world. How many more tragedies will we suffer in this country before we wake up to our capacity to help make the world a safer and more prosperous place, not only through military might but through the gift of life itself?

Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of the Center for International Development at Harvard University and chairman of the commission on macroeconomics and health of the World Health Organization. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.