It’s Not Just Military Aid That’s in America’s Interests

This blog post is based in part on a presentation delivered by Nancy Birdsall on March 19th, 2022 as part of the MIT Seminar XXI program, hosted by Kenneth Oye.

The war in Ukraine has brought US foreign assistance into the public consciousness to a degree rarely seen. Russia’s invasion, and the heroic resistance led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is turning the stream of US military aid to Ukraine into a torrent, at least when measured in dollars. The assistance package approved by Congress last month included $3.5 billion for Ukrainian military supplies, over 10 times the $300 million in military assistance the US sent Ukraine in 2019.

The outpouring is partly a principled response to the crisis. It’s hard to simply watch as the world’s ninth most populous country eats a smaller neighbor alive, and people around the world have found innovative ways to send help. President Biden has clearly been moved too, expressing his “moral outrage” at the end of his speech in Warsaw last month, and more recently describing Russia’s actions as “genocide.”

To a much larger extent, however, the explosion of military aid from the US to Ukraine is motivated by America’s interests. By providing Ukrainians the tools to defend themselves, the US can raise the costs (i.e., the casualties) from Russia’s invasion, making it less likely that Russia will launch similar attacks against America’s eastern European NATO allies in the future. More fundementaly, as argued by Secretary of State Blinken, standing with Ukraine helps to protect the norms of sovereignty and self-determination, and prevents backsliding into the dog-eat-dog world that dominated previous eras.

America providing military aid out of perceived self interest is nothing new, and such spending makes up a huge portion of American foreign assistance generally. Over the last two administrations, an average of $14 billion (30 percent) of the $46 billion disbursed each year in foreign assistance was in the form of military aid. In some cases, the dominant position of America’s own military benefits others as well. CGD’s Commitment to Development Index lists the sea lane protection provided by the US Navy as being among America’s biggest contributions to global development.

If history is any guide, the US may very well increase its overall military aid in the coming years. Geo-political shocks such as the war in Ukraine have motivated the US government to take such steps in the modern era. World War II inspired lend-lease before America’s entry into the conflict, and foreign assistance for security more than doubled in the years after 9/11. Even without the war in Ukraine, China’s rise was heightening fears of renewed great power competition analogous to the Cold War, a period in which the US distributed military aid to roughly 120 countries.

As we focus on Ukraine, however, and the pressures mount for the United States to live up to its past role as the “arsenal of democracy,” we should not lose sight of the fact that other forms of foreign assistance are in the national interest as well. In the years leading up to the pandemic, the US Agency for International Development typically disbursed $20 billion a year to countries around the world to improve health, promote economic development, and support civil society among other things. Far from a wasteful burden, such spending is an investment in a saner, more predictable world for Americans to live in. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which created USAID, said as much in its preamble: “An act to promote the foreign policy, security, and general welfare of the United States by assisting people of the world in their efforts toward economic development and internal and external security, and for other purposes.” (emphases added). 

Development assistance also helps to build favorable perceptions of the US internationally, and entails much less risk of blowback. The Eurasia Group Foundation has twice found that people are more likely to think that US economic aid has had a positive impact on their country than military aid. These views are no trivial matter, as our ability to attract others in international politics can be just as meaningful as our capacity to compel them.

Beyond longer-term development assistance, the need for another form of non-security aid will likely grow in the not-too-distant future; humanitarian disaster relief. Much like international tensions, global temperatures are on the rise, and could reach as much as 5.4 degrees Celsius higher in the year 2100. As the IPCC recently laid out, the risks associated with climate change-induced weather extremes are growing, displacing people and making access to food less secure. These burdens are felt disproportionately by those living in developing regions of the world where poverty is higher and the institutional and financial resources to respond to these challenges are lacking. Between 2010 and 2020, average mortaility from floods, droughts, and storms in the world’s most vulnerable countries was 15 times higher than areas like western Europe and North America.

The natural disasters that cause many of these deaths often do not have the staying power in the public’s mind that the war in Ukraine has generated. At their heights (thus far) the search term “Ukraine war” generated about four times as much traffic on Google in the US as Hurricane Eta, one of the category 4 storms that slammed into Central America in 2020. The Australian wildfires in 2020 generated a mere 1.5 percent of the war’s peak traffic. Apparently mother nature’s violence is less newsworthy than mother Russia’s.

Just as the war continues to destroy cities and lives in the present, however, climate change will cause recovery bills and death tolls to grow for the foreseeable future. Our sense of decency should motivate us to grow our humanitarian assistance in response, but so should pragmatism. Studies by academics and Pew Research Center have shown that humanitarian aid in response to natural disasters can improve America’s image in the countries receiving it. Such emergency assistance initiatives are concrete demonstrations of our commitment to the wellbeing of others, and, if done effectively, can be an important tool in convincing people that the US is a nation worth following.

The world has become a more dangerous place. It is in America’s interests to make foreign assistance, from the lethal to the lifesaving, an integral part of how we navigate that new reality.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.