What We Got For What We Gave

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Every debate over foreign aid raises the question “Why?” Sometimes idealists argue that foreign aid should be completely altruistic, directed at helping other people without thought of American interests. Realists say that the United States always should act in accord with its perceived interests and therefore selfishly. The two views are not necessarily irreconcilable, for nations, like individuals, act in order to receive satisfaction. The real question is how does a nation define satisfaction-narrowly, in terms of its material prosperity and military security, or broadly, in terms of its contribution to the relief of misery, the reduction of economic and political tensions, the protection of human rights, the furtherance of human equality even at the sacrifice of some of its own wealth. The United States through sixty years has been both narrow and broad in its use of foreign aid—and sometimes it has been both at the same time.

Has the United States received its money’s worth? The answer depends on one’s fundamental values and sense of what is possible in this world.