The deaths were directly caused by hunger and other health problems stemming from lack of clean water. It seems likely that the country will soon be in the midst of a full-blown famine. This is an official designation used by the United Nations when very specific criteria are met, including that over 30% of the population is suffering from acute malnutrition. Famine was already declared in a region of nearby South Sudan in February. It is the first official famine in six years. In addition to the famine, South Sudan is also embroiled in a civil war, which has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians; led to over a million people being displaced from their homes; and has been characterized by mass rapes, looting, and the recruitment of child soldiers.
In response to these kinds of humanitarian crises and human rights violations, the United States basically has three main courses of action: early military intervention; humanitarian aid and human rights support; or ignore the situation, unless it runs the risk of affecting us directly, in which case, take military action. This is not an attempt to make our foreign policy seem simpler than it is. Frequently, our interactions with countries in crisis involve a complex combination of military action and various types of aid. Generally speaking, when understanding our foreign policy, it’s important to keep in mind that if and when the U.S. expends resources in countries that are experiencing a crisis, our activities are either primarily military or primarily aid-related.
The level of success of either type of intervention depends on the situation and on how success is measured. The U.S.’s previous military intervention in Somalia, which was partially depicted in the Black Hawk Down book and movie, was seen by some as a success and by some as a failure. The more recent military intervention in Yemen, which is facing a possible famine of its own, is also hard to qualify neatly as just a success or just a failure. And in terms of aid, USAID’s ongoing efforts in South Sudan failed to prevent the famine, but have undoubtedly saved many lives. There has never been an easy way to determine if the United States should send military resources, humanitarian assistance, both or neither when trying to help people in crisis in other countries.
The recent actions of the current administration seem to indicate that we will be pivoting towards foreign policy that is much more focused on military engagement rather than humanitarian assistance or human rights promotion. Last week, the White House announced that the upcoming budget proposal would feature large cuts to foreign aid spending, which is currently about $50 billion a year. The White House’s budget will also feature a big increase in military spending, which is already over $500 billion a year.
Another indicator that there is a conscious policy shift away from providing nonmilitary assistance to people in other countries is that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opted not to present the State Department’s annual Report on Human Rights last week. This was a breach of tradition and seems to contradict Tillerson’s assertion during his confirmation hearing that “Supporting human rights in our foreign policy is a key component of clarifying to a watching world what America stands for.” His decision not to present the report is being seen by some as a signal that international human rights are no longer a priority for the U.S. State Department. Tillerson said he wants to “let the report speak for itself” but hasn’t given any additional details for the reason he chose to skip the presentation.
Eliminating aide programs and downplaying human rights is not the same as saying that for a particular situation a military response is the best. It is much more drastic than that. It is saying that for any future situation in a foreign country where we feel compelled to get involved, for any reason, we will only be able to respond militaristically. One reason often given for wanting to decrease foreign aid spending is that “ the money could be spent here at home” instead of, say, Somalia or South Sudan. But, if we’re not spending that money on humanitarian efforts in Somalia or South Sudan and instead we’re spending it on the military so they can go fight in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Yemen, or Somalia, or South Sudan that is really not spending the money here at home, either.
There also seems to be some idea that the military is depleted or that we should be growing it as a deterrent. But our military is already larger than the next several largest militaries combined. For the types of conflicts this would deter, our military is already big enough and more than capable enough to deter them. And for other threats like terrorists attacks, no military is big enough to act as a deterrent. In fact, in regards to fighting terrorism, foreign aid can be a much more effective tool than military involvement, because it can help to eliminate the circumstances that create terrorism, rather than fighting individual existing terrorists as the military does.
This foreign policy paradigm and spending shift away from aid and human rights towards military intervention is probably not going to decrease terrorism or be the best way to help people in places like Somalia and South Sudan who desperately need humanitarian aid and human rights support, or act as an additional deterrent to war. What this shift will do if we let it happen is cost a lot. America will pay with our standing as a leader in the international community, American people will pay in tax dollars for a bigger military and people we’re not assisting in Somalia and South Sudan will pay with their lives.
Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm and you can find her on Twitter @AlexisAPChapman.