The Russian Federation has just closed down all domestic activities associated with the United States Agency for International Development (A.I.D.). The official arm of the U.S. government’s assistance programs has spent almost $3 billion over the past 20 years combating the spread of diseases, developing the rule of law, and helping modernize infrastructure in Russia.
The Kremlin’s decision follows previous stricter controls on foreign civil society aid and development programs. The Russian argument is that under the guise of development assistance the programs have interfered in the country’s internal affairs, crossing the line between development/humanitarian assistance and political meddling.
What does it mean to cross the humanitarian/political divide? The founder of the Red Cross, Henri Dunant, was a firm believer that humanitarian aid should be completely divorced from politics. In his famous recounting of his experiences at the Battle of Solferino, Dunant made it abundantly clear that his mission was to help the wounded on both sides and to care for civilian casualties no matter what their affiliation.
Geneva prides itself on being the humanitarian/human rights capital of the world. The Spirit of Geneva includes the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the beginning of third party arbitration in the Alabama Room. In all these activities, Swiss neutrality has been crucial; the Spirit of Geneva is based on impartiality.
Has the American aid program been neutral and impartial as the Americans claim and the Russians refute? A.I.D. has been located at several different positions within the U.S. government, sometimes within the State Department and sometimes outside. Its official website announces itself as “US Aid from the American people” and says: “The United States has a long history of extending a helping hand to people overseas struggling to make a better life. It is a history that both reflects the American people's compassion and support of human dignity as well as advances U.S. foreign policy interests.”
Taxpayers support their government’s aid and development programs. It is perfectly reasonable to expect that those programs are in the interest of the country. But what are the country’s interests? For Switzerland, a neutral country, the interests are relatively clear to define and are based on impartiality, as are the traditional activities of the Red Cross, although the Red Cross is not part of the Swiss Government.
Neutrality and impartiality are not at all clear for a major power like the United States. While assistance for building infrastructure or fighting diseases can be neutral, depending on where and for whom the assistance is delivered, enhancing the rule of law and democracy can be interpreted as crossing the humanitarian/political divide. Strengthening a civil society that is critical of a country’s government is often seen as outside provocation. The Russian Federation has clearly stated that it feels the line has been and is being crossed. For the Russians, there has been interference in their internal political affairs.
The great community organizer Saul Alinsky once told me “Never go where you are not invited.” Russian officials have said US A.I.D. and many civil society organizations are no longer welcome in the country. The United States feels that its assistance programs are helping the Russian people in spite of what the government says.
The humanitarian/political divide is truly in the eyes of the beholder, especially when it relates to major powers. Switzerland has a tremendous comparative advantage in being neutral. For major powers like the United States, impartiality is more complex, as is following the famous dictum of Saul Alinsky.