ALMOST 50 years ago, then-Secretary of State George C. Marshall delivered one of the post-World War II era's seminal speeches. In an address at Harvard University in June 1947, Marshall inaugurated the modern era of foreign aid.
Dubbed the Marshall Plan, the massive economic assistance program for postwar Europe began five decades of peace and economic vitality. The infusion of $13 billion in US aid made the difference - communism's western migration was halted, economic stagnation became a thing of the past, and, most important, war and violence came to an end.
Today, with President Clinton and the Republican Congress trying to outdo each other in a dead heat to balance the federal budget, foreign aid has been put on the chopping block as never before.
The United States today contributes a mere 0.16 percent of its gross domestic product to foreign assistance programs, putting it near the bottom among foreign assistance contributors.
In constant dollars, US foreign assistance is at its lowest ebb in more than half a century. American foreign aid today makes up only about 17 percent of total donor contributions for international development.
Japan, for example, despite its small size and a smaller economy, outspends the US in foreign assistance. Last year, France and the Netherlands combined to contribute more to foreign aid than did the US.
Applied strategically to support US interests overseas and promote and nurture democracy around the world - from the nations of the former Soviet Union to the emerging democracies in Latin America and Africa - foreign aid plays a vital role in American national security interests.
The genius of American international assistance programs in the last 50 years has been their recognition of the link between generating prosperity and achieving political stability. In 1980, there were 58 democratic nations in the world. Fifteen years later, the number of nations pursuing a free and open system of government has nearly doubled to 115. The US Agency for International Development provided assistance to 36 of those 57 additional nations, easing and encouraging the transition to democratic government.
As an element of American foreign policy, international assistance programs offer an excellent return on investment. Foreign aid programs since the Marshall Plan have successfully created some of America's closest allies and best trading partners. South Korea, for example, now imports more from the US in one year than it received from American foreign assistance sources in two decades. Many of these nations have gone on to become significant international assistance donors themselves.
To be sure, helping nations around the world establish a thriving domestic economy pays dividends to every American by making the world safer and less prone to violence, and by opening new markets for American goods and services. It is clear that people with a stake in development are less inclined to go to war or support terrorism than those with nothing to lose.
In the last decade alone, the international affairs function of the federal budget has been cut by almost half. And that's far enough. Impairing the effective and full implementation of a strategic American foreign policy is foolish. Secretary Marshall was right: Promoting democracy, establishing a bulwark against aggression and violence, and helping develop a global economy to benefit Americans is a worthwhile investment for today and tomorrow.