by J. R. Bullington, Editor
There is widespread, bipartisan agreement that a high priority for the next President and Congress should be rebuilding the instruments of American “soft power” — the ability in our foreign relations to influence, persuade, perhaps even inspire, as opposed to coerce. Many think-tank studies and special commission reports have made this case in recent months. Moreover, both Senators McCain and Obama have made voluntary national service an important component of their campaigns.
Consequently, this is a promising time to consider expanding and reinvigorating Peace Corps, an iconic American institution emblematic of both soft power and national service.
Created by President Kennedy in 1961 to help win the Cold War struggle with communism for the hearts and minds of people in the newly independent nations then emerging from colonial rule, Peace Corps energized a generation of American youth to serve their country by building people-to-people relationships and promoting basic development in poor countries. Moreover, it put a face on American idealism for people whose image of America was formed primarily by Hollywood movies and hostile propaganda; it built reservoirs of goodwill for the United States; and it inspired the creation of similar international service organizations by Japan and several Western European countries.
After growing to more than 16,000 Volunteers in the 1960s, under the vigorous leadership of its first Director, Kennedy’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, Peace Corps began to fade from public prominence in the 1970s. Congressional appropriations declined, and the number of Volunteers it was able to field dropped to about 6000 by the early 1990s. President Clinton called for its expansion to 10,000 Volunteers, but was only able to get sufficient appropriations for 7000. President Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union address, proposed expansion to 14,000 Volunteers, but Congressional appropriations were again far short of what was needed. Still, under President Bush, the number has grown to about 8000, the present strength.
These 8000 current Volunteers are deployed in 74 countries. Demand for their services remains strong, as more than 20 additional countries have requested Volunteers, and many existing Peace Corps programs seek greater numbers. Moreover, there is no shortage of potential recruits, mostly young people freshly out of college, but also older Americans in the baby boom generation now reaching retirement age.
The constraint is funding.
The amount of money needed to expand and reinvigorate Peace Corps would hardly amount to a rounding error in the U.S. government accounts. Its current (FY-2008) appropriation totals $331 million. This is 0.9% of federal funding for international affairs ($34.8 billion), and 0.01% of the total federal budget ($2931 billion).
The National Peace Corps Association, “a nonprofit community of serving and returned Volunteers and staff whose lives have been influenced by the Peace Corps experience,” has launched a national outreach and legislative campaign for a reinvigorated Peace Corps. The goal is to double Peace Corps’ size and budget by its fiftieth anniversary in 2011. To learn more about this campaign, visit its web site at: www.morepeacecorps.org.
In terms of projecting a positive image of America abroad and building constructive international relationships, Peace Corps provides an inordinately big bang for our foreign affairs buck. Moreover, it reflects both liberal idealism and compassionate conservatism in action, and it provides a proven, effective vehicle for national service and global engagement. It’s an institution of which all Americans can be proud, and it deserves our support.
J. R. Bullington, editor of American Diplomacy, was Peace Corps Director in Niger, 2000-2006. Previously, he was a career Foreign Service Officer, with postings in several Asian and African posts, including as Ambassador to Burundi. He currently lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.