Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has reportedly bought time “to do a deeper analysis of foreign aid” in the face of President Trump’s proposal to slash funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The proposed cuts of 30 percent or more are the product of an “America First” budget that frames the issue of foreign assistance as a choice between nation-building at home and nation-building abroad.

Whether Trump’s proposed cuts are an act of creative destruction, as some hope, or just plain destruction, as many fear, remains unclear. But what is clear is that Tillerson now has an opportunity to debunk the zero-sum view of foreign aid, and complete its transformation from what was once derided as an element of soft power into a smart power instrument of national and economic security.

This transformation began under George W. Bush, whose administration launched ambitious initiatives on AIDS, malaria, human trafficking, food security, global peacekeeping, anticorruption, entrepreneurship and girls’ education, among other things. In so doing, President Bush transformed the way in which foreign assistance was conceived, used and delivered.

He shifted the foreign-assistance debate from a question of inputs (How much should we spend?) to outcomes (What result should we seek, and how do we achieve it most cost effectively?). He replaced the paternalistic, donor-recipient paradigm with “a new compact for development,” based on partnership between rich and poor nations, and shared accountability for results. And he harnessed this approach to innovative delivery mechanisms to ensure that new wine would not end up in old bottles.

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