WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It was a little like asking the man you love whether he loves you, and finally he says he does -- only 72 hours after the question is raised!
That, at least, is how President Bush's -- and thus in the eyes of the world, America's -- response to the devastating tsunami losses in Southeast Asia struck me. While tens of thousands of innocent human beings were perishing in preternaturally boiling seas, the president was busy sawing logs and cutting brush on vacation in Crawford, Texas. Only three days after the onslaught, now dressed in a formal suit, did he give a press conference regretting the tragedy.
It was also, it seemed to me, a little like another president, Richard Nixon, leaving the White House insisting that "I am not a crook!"
The United Nations' emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, had claimed that "the rich nations are not giving enough" and were "stingy." President Bush, obviously peeved during his press conference at the criticism, seemed to want to say, "I am not stingy!" But then he only replied testily that "the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed." In truth, Egeland, one of the U.N.'s most serious and spirited officers, had actually not mentioned the U.S. by name at all but had only said that he thought the wealthy of the world were not giving enough to "the largest natural disaster in recorded human history."
He was right, but for a different reason than probably most observers and readers perceived.
First of all, it is true, as the president said, that the United States, including individuals and organizations, has for many years been the major donor to humanitarian disasters in the world; in fact, its donations were, last year, an impressive 40 percent of the world's, or some $2.4 billion in food, cash and humanitarian relief. But it is also true that the initial American offering this week of $15 million for tsunami victims, not incidentally most of them Muslim, was rightly considered ludicrous by a world critical of humongous American investments in Iraq.
Second of all, when we talk about another kind of aid -- not immediate disaster aid, but long-term development aid -- the story changes dramatically. America's foreign aid adds up to only 0.14 percent of the country's gross national product, compared with 0.92 percent given by the most generous nation, Norway, with barely 5 million people. The New York Times reported this week that, according to polls, "most Americans believe the United States spends 24 percent of its budget on aid to poor countries; it actually spends well under a quarter of 1 percent."
But what is more important yet lies in that part of development aid that aims, through educational, industrial or organizational aid, to help countries make the long-term and in-depth changes in their societal structures that bring them to the level of "developed" countries -- and, not unimportant, to the level of development where science could warn in time against exactly the kind of tragedy that we saw this week.
The ideas behind this kind of human and national development aid lie at the very core of the Protestant ethic that created America. It was the belief that, not only are all men created equal, but also that all men can embrace morality and science as a means of taming their own passions -- and the Earth's. The wonderful results of expanding these ideas in the world can now be seen in intelligently U.S.-aided countries such as postwar Germany and Japan, and today's Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Oman and Tunisia, who have already "made it."
But today, it is our outlook that has changed, and with it, our thrust toward the rest of the world. As we have become a society of immediate gratification, and as we invest astronomical amounts in military adventures, causing our $500 billion deficit, those kinds of aid have dried up.
Just before Christmas, for instance, the Bush administration reduced its contributions to global food aid programs aimed at helping millions of people climb out of poverty. Charities such as Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services have had to eliminate self-help programs where U.S. government funds were promised. At the same time, our scientific research monies are down, foreign students are going elsewhere, and American embassies have become isolated and uncommunicating fortresses across the world.
Americans are tremendously generous people, as we saw when, immediately after the tsunami and not days later, millions of private dollars flowed to private humanitarian groups. This spirit, thank God, still thrives. But the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, who spoke of laying the basis for the "thousandth and thousandth generation" of Americans -- and others -- barely exists in our government today. That can and must be changed.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600