by Roman Napoli
U.S foreign assistance has been a tool of our interests and values since the beginning of our nation. It is a tool and resource for nearly every action we take in achieving our foreign policy goals and is critical for our diplomats and development experts.
For too long, the belief that U.S. foreign assistance starts with the Marshall Plan or the founding of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its focus on long-term development has prevented us from seeing that economic interests have been reflected in our aid to foreign countries for as long as we have existed as a country. The reality of the role that economics play in our foreign policy should dispel any notions that U.S. economic interests are not, and have not always been, intertwined with our generosity since the inception of the nation.
The Foreign Assistance Act of 1948 lays down this link between interests and intentions when it states that the objective of foreign assistance is “To promote world peace and the general welfare, national interest, and foreign policy of the United States through economic, financial, and other measures necessary to the maintenance of conditions abroad in which free institutions may survive and consistent with the maintenance of the strength and stability of the United States1.”
There is little doubt that the modern concept of U.S. foreign assistance comes out of the post-World War II era. President Truman and his team’s Marshall Plan forever changed the discussion; its success even limited the perceived scope of assistance as we saw a new Marshall Plan as the solution to every crisis.
But despite our modern enshrining of the Marshall Plan, Truman and Congress did not see the legislation, including the seminal Foreign Assistance Act, as a watershed moment; to them it reflected a longer-term vision of assistance that dates back to the start of this nation. The recently proposed “Economic Statecraft for the 21st Century Act”, with its wide-ranging provisions designed to combat the malign influence of the People’s Republic of China, is an exception that stands in sharp contrast to how we generally approach development and diplomacy issues. The proposed legislation covers foreign assistance and diplomatic interventions through a range of linked political and economic tools2, further carrying the role of economics in assistance forward to today’s challenge.
To understand this role, we need to go back to the capture of the crews of the Maria and Dauphin by Algerian pirates in 17853. The fledgling United States had limited ties to the Barbary states; its ships were subject to attack and kidnapping of U.S. sailors. As Jessie Kratz of the National Archives and Records Administration described the existential challenge presented by the capture of the Maria and Dauphin: “Americans had a rude awakening to their hopes of free trade throughout the world4.” The Algerian pirates had no agreement or treaty with the United States, and had no reservations capturing the ships and sailors and then demanding nearly $60,000 for the sailors return5.
A 1790 report from Thomas Jefferson shows that $4,200 was offered by the U.S. agent in Algiers for the release of the 21 prisoners, a commitment of funding by the U.S. government6. This funding was much more than a ransom for the crew; the United States wanted an economic pact that would not just release these prisoners but set new terms between the Algerians and our nation. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson saw the link between our economic and democratic interests.
Bemoaning the lack of trade with the Mediterranean following the American Revolution, Jefferson laid the blame squarely on the Algerian pirates7. The options he offered Congress in 1790 emphasized the value of seeking a longer commitment that would allow unfettered trade access8. This had already proven a successful approach with Morocco, which was the first Barbary state to capture a U.S. ship. The United States was able to ratify a treaty with Morocco in just a few short months9.
In the end, the funds Jefferson identified for the agent were never provided to the Algerians. The delay in providing timely assistance led to a significant growth in both the amount and scope of the Algerian demands before a treaty would be signed. The Algerians and Americans negotiated over a series of years, resulting in a significantly higher price, as the number of prisoners and urgency for U.S. business interests grew.
The final deal two centuries ago looks rather similar to our foreign assistance commitments to Egypt and Israel after Camp David and to our ongoing commitments to Jordan. The Algerian treaty included a one-time payment that brought hostilities between the country to an end, a recurring annuity, and future U.S. military donations. The one-time payment of $642,000 was a ten-fold increase over the original Algerian request10. The treaty though, and the protection it provided over U.S. economic interests, was a worthwhile prize. The final obstacle to Mediterranean trade had been removed.
While peace payments and military donations may not sound like the kinds of altruistic contributions often associated with U.S. foreign assistance, they are, and have always been, part of our diplomatic toolbox. Surges of U.S. economic, health, military, and humanitarian assistance after peace settlements have been seen in Columbia, the Balkans, and former Soviet Union countries. Peace is good for U.S. economic interests, and our foreign assistance allows the United States to ensure that our democratic principles are built into post-war and post-conflict regions.
The United States has been clear about this economic link in various eras of the Department of State and USAID’s history. Modern examples include President Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress and Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton’s work to shore up economies and markets in post-Soviet Union Eastern Europe. Even the current and most recent administrations have made efforts to ensure that our economic interests are at the forefront of our foreign policy, including President Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy for the American People. These threads are tied across decades and ensure an unbroken chain that begins with Algerian pirates and a fledgling country’s desire for the freedom to trade.
Awareness of this historical background demonstrates how the same durable economic interests were at play in 1785, after World War II, and today. Starting with the Articles of Confederation and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, economic interests have always been a critical component of U.S. foreign policy and the genesis of U.S. foreign assistance.
This longer view allows us to recast the Marshall Plan as what it truly was- a continuing reflection of U.S. foreign assistance policy that married our economic welfare with our political and humanitarian ones. We are better served for recognizing this long thread and embracing the fullness it brings to U.S. history and assistance. Our long-standing economic interests are durable and do not compromise the value and benefit of foreign assistance.
Roman Napoli is the Policy Director in the Department of State’s Office of Foreign Assistance. A Senior Executive Service civil servant with nearly two decades of government service, he served as the deputy on the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Transformation Task Team, USAID’s Office of Budget and Resource Management, and as USAID’s first deputy Program Management Improvement Officer, as well other senior positions.
1. U.S. Congress. Foreign Assistance Act of 1948; Economic Cooperation Act of 1948. P.L. 87-195. 80th Congress., 2nd sess: Accessed May 17, 2022. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/STATUTE-75/pdf/STATUTE-75-Pg424-2.pdf
2. U.S. Congress. Senate. Economic Statecraft for the Twenty-First Century Act. S.4112 – 117th Congress 2nd Sess (2021-2022): Accessed May 17, 2022. Introduced in the Senate April, 28, 2022. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/4112?s=1&r=1
3. Jessie Kratz, “Pirates: An Early Test for the New Country,” National Archives, July 12, 2015, https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2015/07/12/pirates-an-early-test-for-the-new-country
Kratz, “An Early Test.”
4. “Prisoners at Algiers, Communicated to the Senate and House of Representatives, December, 30, 1790,” American State Papers, 43, Foreign Relations 1: 101 in https://memory.loc.gov/.
5. “Prisoners at Algiers, Communicated to the Senate and House of Representatives, December, 30, 1790,” American State Papers, 43, Foreign Relations 1: 100 in https://memory.loc.gov/.
6. “Mediterranean Trade, Communicated to House of Representatives, December, 30, 1790 and Senate, January 3, 1791,” American State Papers, 43, Foreign Relations 1: 104 in https://memory.loc.gov/.
7. “Mediterranean Trade, Communicated to House of Representatives, December, 30, 1790 and Senate, January 3, 1791,” American State Papers, 43, Foreign Relations 1: 104 in https://memory.loc.gov/.
8. “The Moroccan-American Treaty of Peace and Friendship,” June 28, 1786, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-18-02-0196. [Original source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 18, December 1785–January 1787, ed. Gregg L. Lint, Sara Martin, C. James Taylor, Sara Georgini, Hobson Woodward, Sara B. Sikes, Amanda M. Norton. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016, pp. 360–367.] 9. Kratz, “An Early Test.”