Obama on erasing the military-foreign aid divide

It is not often that we get to hear U.S. President Obama discuss the issue of foreign aid. It is a subject usually reserved for each fall when world leaders gather in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. However, the online news site Vox recently sat down with the president in a sprawling conversation about domestic and foreign policy and their challenges. Foreign aid managed to come up in the discussions and Obama described a vision that some people will not be happy to hear.

“[O]ne of the things I’d like to do over the next couple of years: to try to erase this very sharp line between our military efforts in national security and our diplomatic and foreign assistance efforts,” said Obama to Matthew Yglesias of Vox. “Because in this environment today, we’ve got to think of it all in one piece.”

Obama Vox

It is a line that caught little attention during the long interviews conducted by Yglesias and Ezra Klein last month. It is not all that surprising in a post-9/11 foreign policy world that defense, diplomacy and development are converging. In Afghanistan, deployed troops have to carry out all three tasks at once. Though people are concerned that making the lines unclear between development and defense can cause problems. The democracy programs run by USAID in Cuba and the CIA’s botched vaccine scheme to track down Osama bin Laden are two examples of where things can go wrong.

Obama goes on to explain further how he views foreign aid as a part of his greater U.S. foreign policy goals.

“I think the more interesting question is if you look at our foreign assistance as a tool in our national security portfolio, as opposed to charity, and you combine our defense budget with our diplomatic budget and our foreign assistance budget, then in that mix there’s a lot more that we should be doing when it comes to helping Honduras and Guatemala build an effective criminal-justice system, effective police, and economic development that creates jobs,” he said.

The conversation allows Obama to trot out the stat that most Americans thing one-quarter of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid when it reality it is about 1 percent. Interestingly, he ends the section by pointing out how foreign aid investments that spur on economic development can reduce the need for military engagement with countries. All of his points are couched in language of investments, an idea that is aligned with previous statements from Obama and initiatives from USAID that engage the private sector in making investments from health care to energy.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.