The Foreign Service Journal - January/February 2017
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agricultural production and provide essential services from

water to energy can reduce the conflicts and ungoverned

spaces that threaten U.S. security, in addition to reflecting the

humanitarian instincts of the American people.

U.S. Smart Power Undermined

The fragmentation of U.S. foreign assistance has been the

result of congressional actions—particularly the efforts of

Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)

after the Republicans gained a

majority in the U.S. Senate in

1994—as well as actions by recent


Helms failed in his goal of

abolishing USAID, but he and

others succeeded in weakening

its capacity so that by the end of

the George W. Bush administra-

tion in 2008, USAID had only a

little more than 1,000 Foreign

Service officers—less than half of

the professional diplomatic staff

it had 20 years earlier. U.S. assistance was further fragmented

during the second Bush administration with the creation

of large new assistance programs, such as the President’s

Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (known as PEPFAR) and the

Millennium Challenge Corporation, outside of USAID. It was

apparently easier to create

something new than to try to

fix an existing agency.

Over the years USAID’s

work has been hampered by

dozens of amendments to the

original Foreign Assistance

Act to the point where a casual

reader of the law might wonder how anything at all can get

done. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in

2007 (in his Landon Lecture), after the end of the Cold War

the United States “gutted” its civilian foreign affairs agencies,

especially the State Department and USAID, and thus its smart

power. Rebuilding these institutions takes time.

When the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq called for massive

foreign assistance to stabilize these countries after U.S.-led

invasions, the result was limited

achievement at a very high cost,

due largely to the fact that there

was no single, robust assistance

agency with the kind of staffing

needed to take on urgent and

complex reconstruction tasks. A

secondary problem was a lack of

understanding by senior policy-

makers of what foreign assis-

tance can accomplish and the

timelines involved. At times State

and the Department of Defense

seemed interested only in maxi-

mizing the amount and speed of money going out the door.

Things have gotten better since then under the Obama

administration, but only marginally. Congress has made more

funding available in flexible accounts and USAID staffing has

increased, although not to the levels needed.

With the American people

increasingly wary of

large-scale military

intervention, there is a

desire to use diplomatic

tools over military ones.

One wing of the Presidential

Palace in downtown Port-au-

Prince collapsed during the

January 2010 earthquake.