USAID Acting Administrator John Barsa at 2020 Concordia Summit: "Foreign Assistance Is National Security"

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For Immediate Release

Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Office of Press Relations

Press Corps Colleagues,

USAID Acting Administrator John Barsa spoke at the 2020 Concordia Summit this week, about the role of U.S. foreign assistance as an essential tool of national security from World War II and the Marshall Plan.

Today, USAID continues this role as outlined in President Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy, building on the success of U.S. foreign assistance from the Cold War to the world we live in today from fighting a global pandemic to protecting America from malign actors.

Please find below Acting Administrator Barsa's remarks as delivered, on USAID's role in the National Security structure.

Acting Administrator Barsa’s Remarks at the Concordia UNGA Summit


In March 1946, Winston Churchill visited Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, to reflect on the perils of the day.

The greatest of these challenges, Churchill said, were war and tyranny. The world had just emerged from history’s most destructive war. The nascent organization called the “United Nations” -- whose annual General Assembly gathers us here, albeit virtually -- was the hopeful forum to mitigate, if not end, the scourge of great wars.

Tyranny, in Churchill’s view, would provide a greater challenge to the Free World.

As Churchill explained in this “Iron Curtain” address, countries were not as much “liberated” by the Soviet Union as they were re-occupied by another tyrant, this time sitting in Moscow, not Berlin.

The ability to choose their own governments via democratic means and enjoy such liberties as a free press were quickly eroded. For those living in these Soviet satellite countries, liberation from one dominating external power was merely the exchange of control to another dominating power.

But this renewed oppression was not a danger confined just to countries where Soviet tank treads rolled or where Soviet army boots trod. It was a danger to the entire free world. And, Churchill advised, it needed to be confronted by addressing citizens’ basic anxieties: “poverty and privation.”

Post-war economic deprivation, shortages of food, and fragile governments made countries vulnerable to subversion, destabilization, and malign influence.

Confronting that reality, the United States added foreign assistance to the national security toolbox.

This moment in history is the root of the journey that has led to the United States becoming the world’s leader in global health, development, and advocacy for citizen-responsive governance.

Seeing widespread suffering and the looming threat of Communism, the United States carried out the Marshall Plan. We emerged from World War Two the world’s strongest military power. The Marshall Plan demonstrated that we are also the world’s most generous country. We still are.

An unprecedented $15 billion economic assistance program, the Plan -- enabled the countries of Western Europe to rebuild and ultimately resist hostile overtures and machinations coming from Moscow. It was an unmitigated success.

In his inaugural speech in 1949, President Truman took this thinking further. In the fourth point of his speech he noted that “more than half of the people of the world [were] living in conditions approaching misery”, and that technological knowledge and expertise should be shared with “peace loving people….in order to help them realize their aspirations for a greater life”.

When the proposals of Point Four of his inaugural speech were actually codified by the Foreign Economic Assistance Act of 1950, President Truman reminded the world of the context of these unprecedented altruistic efforts:

“If we can, gradually but steadily, help to replace sickness with health, illiteracy with education, poverty with a higher standard of living, for the millions of peoples who live in underdeveloped areas, we shall make a tremendous contribution to the strength of freedom and the defeat of Communist imperialism.”

This enactment of Truman’s vision of international development in this context, formalized “foreign aid” as a tool of national security.

While the efforts launched as part of this Point Four codification undoubtedly improved the human condition throughout the world and made millions less susceptible to oppression and tyranny, not every battle in the ideological “Cold War” was a victory.

Almost exactly a decade after Truman verbalized the role of development in national security efforts and launched a myriad of Point Four Programs led by multiple entities, the island of Cuba, a close ally 90 miles from U.S. shores, fell into the sphere of Soviet influence. This was a wake up call -- to the U.S. and to the world -- that more needed to be done in the global ideological struggle.

This wake up call, led Congress to gather up the disparate development efforts led by multiple government organizations and formed them into one cohesive whole. This cohesive whole, codified through the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, was of course the United States Agency for International Development or USAID.

And when signing the bill into law that made USAID a reality, President John F. Kennedy reminded the world that U.S. development efforts were meant to assist those more susceptible to malicious intent. He said:

“Our adversaries are intensifying their efforts in the entire under-developed world. Those who oppose their advance look to us and I believe, at this dangerous moment, we must respond.”

And in the decades since its foundation, USAID has achieved so much in the improvement of the human condition:

  • USAID joined the global effort to eradicate smallpox through investing in research and innovative ways to distribute a vaccine. Smallpox was officially eradicated in 1980, and is the first disease to be conquered on a global scale.
  • USAID assisted South Korea to transition from being an aid recipient to a major aid donor in just a few decades. South Korea is now the world’s 15th largest economy and is one of the United States’ closest trading partners.
  • With USAID’s assistance, India transitioned from a recipient of U.S assistance to the world’s largest democracy and a modern power in its own right.
  • Similarly, in our own backyard countries like Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica have graduated from aid recipients to development partners.
  • ...and the list of achievements goes on and on.

But why am I taking so much time to go over the history of USAID?

I’m doing it because we need to remember that while history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes.

As the Cold War was winding down, Francis Fukuyama wrote a now-famous piece titled “The End of History”. In this essay Fukuyama posited that the world was witnessing “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. While foreign aid and development was not a central tenet of his essay, the implication was that efforts to combat hunger, disease and poverty would be continuing, but without overarching ideological conflicts or visions for the world.

As should be abundantly clear to us now, that wasn’t exactly true. While some of the hostile actors have changed, or have renamed themselves...and while many tactics have evolved...the truism that malevolent forces continue to seek to take advantage of vulnerable people and vulnerable states unfortunately remains.

Radical ideologies and worldviews seek to ensnare the disenfranchised in efforts to sow violence and undermine governments and societies. Strong countries still prey upon the weak seeking to shape the world in ways more favorable to their authoritarian illiberal preferences.

And the role of development, championed by USAID, remains a key element in helping ensure that nations around the world can develop their own economies and institutions to better withstand attempts to do them harm.

In 2017, the Trump Administration released its National Security Strategy, which lays out four vital interests in this competitive world. The fourth interest is to advance American influence.

The 2017 Donald J. Trump National Security Strategy clearly states the nature of today’s challenges which expanded American influence must seek to counter:

“During the Cold War, a totalitarian threat from the Soviet Union motivated the free world to create coalitions in defense of liberty. Today’s challenges to free societies are just as serious, but more diverse. State and non-state actors project influence and advance their objectives by exploiting information, democratic media freedoms, and international institutions. Repressive leaders often collaborate to subvert free societies and corrupt multilateral organizations.”

Expanding American influence means showing the world what it is that we stand for. What we do at USAID is a clear expression of American values and principles. USAID has a unique role to play in advancing American that neither the State Department, nor the Defense Department can play.

At USAID, we promote free trade among free people. We value, support, and nurture inclusive economic growth, democratic governance, and self-reliance. Our work removes conditions that give rise to violent extremism and decreases vulnerability to hostile nation-state actors. We work tirelessly to make sure that all who wish to live in freedom and prosperity can do so.

Our aid catalyzes the conditions for countries to improve the human condition...

Our aid advances American interests by reducing the vulnerability of populations to extreme ideologies...

Our aid cultivates democracies and creates a network of states that advance our common interests and values...

Our aid creates new markets for American businesses, and creates new generations of consumers for our goods and services...

Our aid restores stability, and prevents disasters from creating the conditions that can give rise to conflict and discord...

Our aid can stop wars before they start, reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.

In short, by doing all this, our foreign aid makes the U.S., and the world, safer.

So who could be opposed to our efforts?

Today the greatest nation-state challenger to the values of democratic and economic self-determination is undoubtedly the Chinese Communist Party. Nothing can be a greater contrast to our efforts to assist countries along their Journeys to Self Reliance than their efforts to undermine political systems and economies to further enable the maintenance of their own authoritarian regime.

China exploits vulnerable countries by offering “deals” on shoddy infrastructure which more often than not does more to expand the Chinese economy and extend Chinese hegemony than it does in improving host countries economic or political independence.

And now that the Covid-19 pandemic is challenging the world’s health systems and economies, we are all seeing not just a renewed Chinese vigor on all of these one-sided activities, we are also seeing them add things like the distribution of digital surveillance technology and cheaply made faulty PPE to the mix.

In short, the Chinese “development” model could not be more diametrically opposed to the USAID model of helping countries along their Journey to Self Reliance.

And just as our antecedents rolled up their sleeves to further US national security interests with the Marshall Plan and Point Four initiatives, we at the USAID of today have also rolled up our sleeves to meet today’s national security interest with our programs and efforts.

USAID was not and is not a charity.

USAID was not and is not a think tank.

USAID was not and is not an NGO.

USAID was, is, and will continue to be a proud part of the United States of America’s national security structure.

And we are grateful to be a part of the US national security structure that seeks to make the world a healthier, more prosperous and freer place.

And I am grateful for this opportunity to spend some time with you.

Thank you.

John Barsa
Acting Administrator, USAID
September 21, 2020

Last updated: January 18, 2021

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