Putting Aside the "Humanitarian, Do-Good" Stuff
By Chris Marcoux, Mellon Post Doctoral Fellow at the College of William and Mary
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke “straight realpolitik” at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week, urging the committee to “put aside the humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in” and recognize that the United States is “in competition with China.” Clinton argued that proposed budget cuts to U.S. foreign assistance would hinder the ability of the United States to compete for global influence. Reducing aid expenditures would render the U.S. less able to promote its national interests in international relations. By way of example, Clinton noted that the U.S.-based corporation Exxon-Mobil was being forced to fend off challenges from Chinese competitors following its recent energy find in Papua New Guinea. These comments were notable not because they represent a change in course for the Secretary of State. To the contrary, they continue the recent trend of couching foreign assistance in terms of national defense (in February, Clinton suggested that aid cuts would be devastating to U.S. national security).
We speculate that left leaning legislators see foreign aid as designed to promote development and help poor people in developing countries. However, left-leaning legislators rely on support from labor interests and in economic hard times they find it harder to justify sending aid abroad when their core constituents are struggling. However, right leaning legislators see foreign aid as a tool to promote commercial interests within their core business constituencies or as a tool to promote foreign policy goals of their country. Hence, right-leaning legislators are less sensitive to unemployment when deciding on how much foreign aid to give. While it may be true that left-leaning politicians look more favorably on foreign aid in general than their conservative counterparts, they find themselves in more of a political bind during economic hard times.