By Maria Saporta
U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) made a passionate case for American involvement in foreign affairs — particularly in Africa — at the opening of Monday’s 3rd Annual Atlanta Summit: Health in Africa – the Unfinished Agenda.
Isakson has attended every one of the summits that bring together Atlanta’s multiple global health organizations and the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.
They include CARE, the World Affairs Council, GSU, CDC Foundation, Coca-Cola, UPS, AGCO and GE working with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Isakson said he is often asked why the United States should spend money on foreign aid given its domestic problems.
Isakson told the group of more than 300 people attending the summit that the United States spends less than 1 percent of its discretionary budget on foreign aid.
“But it’s very important for our country because it represents the soft power of the United States,” Isakson said. “You share the knowledge that helps make us great; who is it in the world who has helped us out giving us influence in the world economy. Soft power is important.”
It also can be leveraged to make sure that countries invest in the right areas.
Isakson became involved in Africa in 2007 when then U.S. Senator Dick Lugar asked him to serve on the Foreign Relations Committee and head up the Africa sub-committee. Although he was not an expert in Africa, Isakson said yes, and he immersed himself in African issues and made countless trips to the continent. (Although he is no longer in that role, he has become involved in international trade issues in the U.S. Senate).
He also learned that U.S. foreign aid could be a powerful tool to making sure countries did the right thing. When U.S. officials realized that funding to Ethiopia was not going towards the education of girls and women, they were able to make that a condition of their giving.
Isakson said the purpose “is not to buy friends, but to win friends through soft power.”
There also is a strong economic incentive for the United States to make friends in Africa, home to some of the fastest-growing nations in the world.
“If you want to expand your market share, you do it in Africa,” Isakson said in an interview before the summit began. Companies like the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. understand the growth opportunities that exist in African nations when compared to already developed nations.
Isakson also quoted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s book: “The World is Flat,” by saying we really have become a global economy.
“There has been an expansion of business and economic interests around the world,” Isakson said. “Africa is like Alabama now. Every place in the world is a potential market for business.”
From a global health perspective, Atlanta also has a vested interest in making sure that people have clean water to drink and clean air to breathe — two basic needs for people to remain free of diseases.
As the home of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta is a hub for global health – and one of the key reasons why the summit has been taking place.
“The CDC is the world’s health center,” Isakson said in the interview. “It’s the most taken-for-granted asset we have in the United States. Go anywhere in the world, and they have greater appreciation for the CDC than we do here.”
The CDC is always on guard against any bug or virus that could get out of control and quickly spread into an epidemic — think of the movie “Contagion,” Isakson said. It’s a movie that has kept him up at night because it is not outside the realm of possibility.
To hit the message home, Isakson borrowed and changed the quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham jail” where he wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In a similar way, a virus anywhere is threat to everyone everywhere.
And if those are not reasons enough to have strong relations with other countries around the world, Isakson added one more. Every time we can win over another friend and “they vote with the us at the United Nations,” Isakson said, the better off we are.