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Most don't know how stingy U.S. now is


America's leaders are inconsistent and incoherent on the foreign policy that should be in place six years after the breakup of the Soviet Union ended 40 years of terrifying coexistence. But Congress is about to pass a bill giving $245 billion to the military -- $10 billion more than the Pentagon requested and more than the total military expenditures of the next 10 nations combined.

At the same time, Congress in 1995 allowed all nonmilitary aid to foreign nations to decrease to an unprecedented low of $7.3 billion. This means that the United States dropped to fourth place among all nations, behind Japan ($14.5 billion), France ($8.4 billion) and Germany ($7.5 billion). Even worse, the 1995 figure for U.S. aid was only .10 percent of the gross national product, thus putting the United States 21st among donor nations. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation, no nation spent less of its wealth to help the poor abroad.

In January, President Clinton with great reluctance signed a bill that reduced America's direct development assistance to poor nations by 22 percent and cut food grants to hungry nations by 7 percent.

Most Americans do not apparently realize how stingy their country has become. Polls show that people somehow believe that the nation is giving something in the range of 15 percent of the federal budget to foreign aid where the actual figure is less than one-half of 1 percent.

Some 80 percent of Americans want their country to share some of its wealth with poorer nations, but officials in Washington give no moral or political leadership. Congress and the White House are obliged to point out that foreign aid works. More than 20 nations with aid from the United States and other assistance have become trading partners with the United States. Malnutrition has diminished and millions of children have been able for the first time to go to school.

The United States is equally incoherent in its relations with the United Nations. Congress has made a vague promise that beginning in 1997 America will pay its debt of $1.25 billion to the United Nations in five annual installments. In the interim, the United Nations is fiscally and to some extent morally bankrupt. Stanley Meisler, author of the book The United Nations: The First Fifty Years, said recently that the "United States is pursuing policies that are bringing the U.N. to its knees."

President Franklin Roosevelt conceived of the United Nations as the League of Nations with teeth. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeline Albright described the U.N. Security Council as an "international 911 number."

But since the experience in Somalia and the deaths of 18 American Rangers in October 1993, the Clinton White House has been distancing itself from the United Nations and especially from its secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The White House's determination to prevent the secretary-general from having another term further complicates the close collaboration that should exist between the United Nations and its principal founder, the United States.

A recent Gallup Poll reveals that 77 percent of Americans support U.S. membership in the United Nations, but there appears to be little widespread protest at the irresponsible way Congress is refusing to fulfill America's legal and moral obligations to the world body.

Despite the mistakes of the United States in its relationship with the United Nations since the end of the Cold War, the United Nations has experienced a rebirth. It dispatched peacekeepers to 18 nations including Cambodia, El Salvador, Angola and Haiti. The United Nations conducted a World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in June 1993, which brought humanity's respect and compliance with international human rights to new heights.

Clearly the United States is the key player in what the world will do about giving nonmilitary aid to poorer nations and what the United Nations will do to carry out its central role of being a global peacekeeper. Americans have vague but deep aspirations to excel in being peacemakers in the world.

In 1961, President Kennedy established the Agency for International Development. Its mandate needs to be clarified and broadened. It carries out the dreams and hopes of all Americans, which Kennedy articulated in his unforgettable words:

"To those people in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves ... not because the communists are there, but because it is the right thing to do."

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996