WASHINGTON — For as long as anyone in Washington can remember, congressional budgeteers have gotten caught in the middle in an annual wrangle over the inscrutable issue of foreign aid.
The State Department thinks it's needed. Most of the public thinks it's a waste of money. What to do?
Three Yale University scholars have come up with an answer that is likely to provoke comment - and criticism: Provide foreign aid, but limit American largess to the few hand-picked nations whose collapse would demonstrably harm US interests abroad.
"Despite congressional pressure to reduce or eliminate overseas assistance, it is vital that America focus its efforts on a small number of countries whose fate is uncertain and whose future will profoundly affect their surrounding regions," write the three - Paul Kennedy, a history professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and Robert Chase and Emily Hill, Yale PhD candidates - in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.
The concept of strategically "pivotal" states has a long diplomatic pedigree. One example is 19th-century Turkey, seat of the tottering Ottoman Empire, whose imminent collapse was a constant source of worry to European diplomats at the time.
A more recent incarnation appeared in the early years of the cold war, when US diplomats, authors of the "domino theory," invested nations like Vietnam with enormous importance in the crusade to contain communism.
Today's dominoes, the three Yale scholars argue, are not threatened from without but from within. Runaway population growth, inept economies, environmental degradation, and massive refugee flows are placing growing pressures on fragile, often underfunded governments. "Chaos and instability may prove a greater and more insidious threat to American interests than communism ever was," they write.
Physical size, population, and economic potential are obvious criteria for defining pivotal states. The crucial yardstick is the impact of such a state's breakdown on regional and international stability.
"A pivotal state is so important regionally that its collapse would spell transboundary mayhem: migration, communal violence, pollution, disease, and so on," the authors write.
Nine states meet the test, the authors say: Mexico, Brazil, Algeria, Egypt, South Africa, Turkey, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
Their futures are precarious for different reasons. Mexico, Brazil, and Indonesia are delicately balanced between economic progress and turmoil. Egypt's problems include a faltering economy that has driven many desperate Egyptians - one-third of whom live below the poverty line - into the arms of Muslim fundamentalists.
For their part, India and Pakistan are struggling with overwhelming population growth, which is producing packed urban slums and contributing to deforestation, the depletion of water resources, and the quick exhaustion of marginal rural lands.
The strategy of targeting money on hot spots can bridge important philosophical and political gaps, the authors argue. One is between foreign-policy experts who see security threats in traditional military terms and those who worry about the "new" security threats posed by overpopulation and environmental degradation.
Another is between internationalists, who are often tempted to spread US resources too thin, and isolationists, who would write off the world altogether.
A third gap is between proponents of foreign aid and conservatives in Congress, backed by most of the American public, who think foreign aid is a boondoggle.
The authors say managing relations with the great powers remains the primary task of US foreign policy. They also acknowledge the hazards of cutting aid to dozens of other needy nations, including those, like Haiti and the Philippines, that have undertaken political and economic reforms at the urging of the United States.
Even so, the strategy "has a greater chance of coherence and predictability than vague and indiscriminate assurances good will to all developing countries, large and small," they conclude.