Back in the 1970’s when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, we were building concrete block, tin-roofed houses that most folks didn’t want and couldn’t afford.   Up in the far Northwest corner of Cote d’Ivoire as we American volunteers were building houses nobody wanted, the Germans vols ran a children’s nutrition program, the Israeli’s were teaching farmers how to improve their yields and the Chinese were building a reservoir and irrigation system.  Given that we were a two day trip from Abidjan, the Cote d’Ivoire’s capital, in a small town with a population of around 5,000 it was pretty impressive that so many nations were dispensing foreign aid at the edge of the Sahara Desert.  Odienne has a population of 50,000 today. It was the Chinese operation that most impressed me seeming to be the most relevant of aid projects.  

Fast forward to 2016 and a trip to Sri Lanka.  As we were leaving Colombo’s airport in a taxi, I noticed that the vehicle we were riding in seemed pretty well put together.  No Mercedes, perhaps, but much more solid, elegant and refined than the typical Maruti-Suzuki’s one sees all over India.  There was no identifying logo on the steering wheel so I asked the cabbie what the make of the car was.  He responded with a name I didn’t recognize and told me it was made in China.  “Wow,” I thought, “who knew?”  But as we rolled along a limited access highway that looked as if it was only a couple of years old, I noticed that the toll booths were very slickly designed.  The swept roof rest area we stopped in was far better than any I’ve patronized anywhere here in the U.S.  Following the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, I learned that it was the Chinese who had built an extensive network of limited access expressways in the country, had constructed two airports and a huge shipping port as part of their foreign aid.   As we travelled around the country there was dozens of buildings being constructed by Chinese companies and China’s influence was readily apparent. 

This is the kind of foreign aid – particularly in agriculture - that the United States used to engage in back in the days when I was a Peace Corps volunteer.  But we no longer do.  And with the Trump/Bannon “America First” isolationist policies, the State Department’s budget is facing a cut of 28%, it looks as if whatever foreign aid the U.S. is dispensing around the world today is just going to end.   Polls consistently show that folks believe that the U.S. spends between 25% and one third of our budget on foreign aid.  In reality the figure is around 2% excluding military aid.  When I think back to what the Chinese were doing in a remote corner of a non-strategic West African nation coupled with what they are doing in Sri Lanka today and presumably in other nations as well, I can’t help but think that China has winning friends and influencing nations all that time while the United States is mostly regarded already by it’s absence in such activities around the world.  Especially since Sri Lanka is not exactly a cornerstone of strategic importance in world affairs.  

The Trump Administration has “signaled” that they prefer to “win friends and influence nations” through brute force, but then I’m not of your “worldwide religious warfare” philosophy like the Trump Team.   Not exactly sure how this is actually going to help America or Trump’s Rust Belt voters; Defense Department contracts, I suppose.   As I’ve noted before, if the military needs to be “built up” or “rebuilt” or “restored to greatness” after having a budget of nearly  $600 billion annually, then something is seriously wrong.  And don’t forget, our defense budget is greater than those of the next 7 nations COMBINED!  I mean the military needs MORE money?  WTF?  China has the second largest military budget at $191 billion (that’s only one-third of the U.S. budget) followed by Great Britain at $66.5 billion, Russia at $53.2 billion (one-tenth of our budget), France at $52.7 billion and India at $49.7 billion. 

How about some new ideas here?  How about we cut the military budget in half which would leave let’s say $300 billion if my math is correct that we might use to rebuild our infrastructure.  Maybe the 21% cut in the States Department Foreign Aid budget could be offset by re-directing the foreign aid we send to both Egypt and Israel each year ($3 billion to each) since it doesn’t seem to be doing all that much good.  Egypt is still stuck with an authoritarian regime and Israel is the most heavily armed state in the Middle East already.   

Or maybe take some of these savings and start acting like China and actually build real things that people need around the world and, as a result, start winning friends and influencing nations again. There is a severe famine taking place in South Sudan as I write this.  Trump's new United Nation's Ambassador, Nikki Halley, responded to the question "What is the U.S. prepared to do to help the folks in South Sudan?"  by citing Trump's buildup of the military, that, in her words, would bring peace and stability to the world.  Really?  People - men, women and infants - are dying in extraordinary numbers and this is the United States' response to what is clearly a humanitarian crises of unprecedented proportions?   And you wonder why it is that the reputation of the United States of America has fallen so low among the nations of the world?

And make no mistake about it:  This is not the response of the just the United States, this is our response, this is we the people's response, this is your response to the rest of the world.

This is not the way to win friends and influence nations.    


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