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.