May 1, 2008

Alliance Curse: How America Lost the Third World

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American foreign policy needs a new playbook. Trapped in an outdated cold war mindset, Washington continues to forge alliances with dictators who do not share its values of freedom and democracy. America is once again backing authoritarian regimes that oppress their citizens and plunder resources—this time in the name of global stability and the war on terror. The unfortunate result is a legacy that engenders resentment and distrust among the developing world’s populations.

In Alliance Curse, Hilton Root illustrates how misguided foreign aid policy can backfire, stunting rather than advancing political and economic development, and poisoning relations instead of capturing hearts and minds. Partnering with dictators can produce perverse disincentives for those regimes to govern for prosperity, resulting in corruption, economic failure, and instability. These policies contradict America’s image as the champion of freedom and democracy, making the developing world even more wary of its intentions.

Why does this self-defeating tendency continue? U.S. policymakers find that the demands of their constituents—security, affordable raw materials, access to markets—are most easily accomplished by cutting deals with autocrats. Democracies, even poor ones, are less likely to exchange policy concessions for aid. Accordingly, the most corrupt low-income countries, those generally under autocratic rule, receive the bulk of U.S. bilateral assistance. But the ill effects of this trade-off can linger for generations. The linkage of U.S. aid to oppressive regimes erodes goodwill toward America among indignant populations. And when the foreign assistance dries up—as it invariably does—the dictators themselves frequently turn on America and end their cooperation. It is no wonder then that the United States faces major foreign policy dilemmas in the very countries that were major recipients of aid.

Root buttresses his analysis with real-world case studies, concluding with recommendations designed to close the gap between security and economic development. His work belies conventional wisdom that distinguishes between long-term global development and short-term U.S. security. Indeed, the long term is quite relevant, he argues, and to overlook that fact would be a tragic mistake.