After a 9.0 earthquake devastated Japan last year, the United States moved quickly, sending 17,000 military personnel, 14 ships and 113 helicopters to help with search and rescue operations. The U.S. government lent the country the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan to transport Japan's troops to disaster areas and packed the USS Blue Ridge full of humanitarian supplies.
The swift response struck a chord with the Japanese public, who have historically chafed at hosting U.S. troops.
“To be honest, I didn’t think much about the U.S. troops until now,’’ Arika Ota, 29, a resident of the coastal city of Sendai, told the Associated Press days after the disaster. “But when I see them working at the airport every day, I’m really thankful. They are working really hard. I never imagined they could help us so much.’’
Humanitarian aid delivered over the last decade has boosted the United States's image overseas, according to a new report from the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
In Japan, the number of people who expressed a favorable view of the United States increased from 66 to 85 percent after the nation stepped in to help. Seventy-nine percent of Indonesians said American relief efforts following the 2004 tsunami improved their views of the country. Even in Pakistan, American approval rates increased by 4 percent after the United States gave $500 million in earthquake relief in 2005.
"Of course, many things can affect how people view the U.S., but the aid clearly had an impact," wrote Richard Wike, study author and associate director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
Relief work isn't a sure fix for international relations problems, though. While post-tsunami aid work prompted positive views of the United States to jump from 15 to 38 percent in Indonesia, approval ratings didn't bounce back to pre-Iraq war levels. Within two years of the earthquake, goodwill in Pakistan had already slipped 15 percent.
"The lesson for disaster relief efforts is that they are more likely to have a significant effect on public attitudes in countries where there is at least a reservoir of goodwill toward the U.S.," Wike wrote. "In nations such as Pakistan, where countervailing issues and deeply held suspicions drive intense anti-Americanism, enhancing America’s image through humanitarian aid may prove considerably more difficult."
Despite pressure to reduce the federal deficit, President Barack Obama has asked Congress to up funding for foreign aid 2 percent next year to $56.2 billion. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week requested $51.6 billion for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"When I took this job, I saw a world that needed America, but also one that questioned our focus and our staying power," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations. "So we have worked together to put American leadership on a firm foundation for the decades ahead."
The idea of increasing international aid spending isn't popular among the general public. More Americans support cutting foreign aid than any other line item, according to a recent Harris Poll. Seventy-nine percent of Americans support cutting economic assistance and 74 percent favor cutting military assistance.
Critics point out the foreign-affairs budget has ballooned since 2000, when the country spent just $23.5 billion. If Obama's budget is approved, foreign aid will have increased 139 percent in 12 years, according to Brett Schaefer, the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulator Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.
While foreign aid may improve international opinion of the nation, Schaefer argued, the majority of recipients of U.S. money still routinely vote against America at the United Nations General Assembly.
"Regrettably, the record for all of the economic assistance programs is inconclusive at best," he wrote in an opinion piece for National Review Online. "At worst it can be counterproductive and is often used by entrenched regimes to retain power."
In a recent opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal, U.S. Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., acknowledged "cutting foreign aid has always been a guaranteed applause line." He argued, though, slashing the budget would be short sighted.
"We can't be strong at home if we aren't strong in the world," he wrote.
The foreign policy budget finances counterterrorism efforts that improve American security, he wrote. By contributing to international financial institutions like the World Bank, the United States not only improves the economies of developing countries, but also opens markets for American businesses. By helping stabilize other countries, the United States is investing in a more peaceful future.
"We know the difference we can make," he wrote. "Paired with forward-thinking diplomacy, development programs can help turn old enemies (like Vietnam) into new friends, and turn friends (like South Korea) into partners that share the burdens of leadership."