Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at a White House Briefing for the Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs

October 21, 1987

Well, Henry Fowler, Melvin Laird, and distinguished guests: Welcome to the White House complex. For many of you the White House is an old stomping ground, so this is really welcome back. It's not often I could just about form a new Cabinet from people who are with me here in this room.

This year we mark 42 years of general peace in the world. And that doesn't mean there hasn't been conflicts in that time-obviously there have been—but it does mean that for 42 years mankind has not seen the likes of the world wars that in the first half of this century twice tore civilization apart. This peace has not come without sacrifice. Young Americans have fought, and some have died, to maintain it; and it has not come without resolve. It's come because America has been willing to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership.

No one understands better than you here today that, like it or not, we are the leader of the free world. And that is not a role we asked for; it's a role that was thrust upon us by history and by the hopes of those who aspire to freedom throughout the world. It is said that geography is destiny, but let me say that destiny is much more than that.

We are a global power, with global interests and global responsibilities. We can ignore but we cannot escape this basic truth, and any retreat from our responsibilities endangers both our national ideals and our national interests.

All Americans can agree on the fundamental objectives of our foreign policy. We want to promote democracy, because it is right, and because democratic governments are less likely to become involved in wars of aggression. We want a growing world economy where free enterprise works, because that's the kind of world in which men and women will live the best and most materially and, I would submit, spiritually decent lives. And we want to work with our friends and allies to prevent regional conflicts and enhance the security of friendly nations.

These goals have to do with something that's more enduring than day-to-day headlines or the narrow special interest politics that too often dominate Washington's agenda. It has to do with something we call the national interest, which is something every American has a stake in. Yet in the last few years, every old and worn excuse for not giving adequate financial support for these goals has received a new and more sympathetic hearing on Capitol Hill. You know the excuses: We can't afford foreign aid anymore, or we're wasting money pouring it into these poor countries, or we can't buy friends—other countries just take the money and dislike us for giving it. Well, all these excuses are just that, excuses—and they're dead wrong.

Give away too much money without return? The truth is that now, and historically, we've spent very little on foreign affairs in terms of the overall budget of our government. In the late forties and early fifties, during the time of the Marshall plan, we spent 11 cents of every Federal dollar on foreign affairs. That figure had dropped to 4 cents on the dollar by 20 years ago and has continued to fall until, in recent years, we've been spending less than 2 cents of each dollar to support our foreign policy. And that's money that gets a big return. Is there anyone who believes that we in America would live in as good a world and be as secure if we could turn back the clock and undo the Marshall plan?

Today our economic development aid goes to those same countries in the developing world that provide some 35 percent of the market for our merchandise exports-more than the total volume of U.S. goods purchased by Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China all put together. And for every billion dollars we export, we support 26,000 jobs for Americans. Just as important, Latin America, for example, will be as pivotal to our peace and prosperity in the next century as Europe is in this. If we ignore it now, we'll pay the price later.

So, what about the charge that we waste our money trying to buy friends? Well, the truth is that the money we spend on security assistance means our allies around the world can join us in defending not only their security but ours. What they can do because of our assistance, we don't have to do. And we should never forget that we aren't buying friends; we're helping friends. We're helping them open the roads of enterprise and opportunity for their own people, helping them build their own institutions of pluralism and democracy, and helping them defend themselves against externally sponsored pressures and subversion.

And anyone who doubts how the peoples of Central America, for example, feel about this should have been here at the White House last week when El Salvador's President Duarte, on behalf of his nation's people, stepped down from that reception platform over on the lawn and walked across the lawn to the Color Guard and kissed and saluted the American flag. Or maybe they should have been in Managua with our former U.N. Ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, last week when cheering crowds greeted her. And as one of them said, "We want what she wants for Nicaragua," and that's what I want, too: democracy-true, full, and real democracy.

In the last few weeks, the Congress has been cutting foreign affairs funding to where it damages our nation's interests and security. We have already had to severely cut back economic and military support relationships with allies and friends who are very important to our security. And this is happening even as spending on many domestic programs is going up. For example, the entire Federal budget increased by almost 2 percent in 1987; by contrast, foreign aid was reduced by 29 percent in 1986 and another 11 percent in 1987. Congress throws money at its own priorities but ignores the priorities and the commitments this nation has to help build our national security. When it comes to special interests, too often Congress is like Ado Annie in "Oklahoma." It "can't say no."

For the budget year beginning this October, I submitted a rock-bottom request that would still allow us to undo some of the harm caused by cuts in previous years and return to a level of funding that will not put our security at risk. But now the Congress is cutting again, and the amounts approved by the committees in both the House and the Senate—are being considered by the defense authorization conference—are more than 15 percent below what we requested as the minimum amount necessary to do the job. In fact, as it stands now, the foreign affairs part of the budget is one of the few that has decreased; all the others have increased. And just recently they did even more damage when the Senate attached 86 amendments to the State Department authorization bill. It's time for Congress to shove the special interests aside and return the national interest to the head of the class.

So, I've just stopped by today to thank all of you for what you're doing. If we can get this message out, I think it'll change some minds. It's not that the folks on Capitol Hill don't want to do the right thing—most of them do—but they sometimes need a little encouraging. And as I've so often said: If you want them to see the light, make them feel the heat. [Laughter]

I could go on with this and some of our things, but just to give you one set of figures over the last few years that might interest you: For every dollar of defense spending that they have cut, they have added $2 in spending to the domestic programs. And it comes out to about $125 billion cut from defense; $250 billion have been added to the domestic spending.

So, I think we're all on the same side on this particular issue. And I want to tell you I feel much better as I now say thank you, and God bless you—and get back over to the Oval Office—for what you're doing.

Note: The President spoke at 11:48 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. In his opening remarks, he referred to Henry H. Fowler and Melvin R. Laird, cochairmen of the Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a White House Briefing for the Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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