At the beginning of the twenty-first century, American philanthropists could point with pride to two centuries of giving and voluntary association for the good of humanity abroad. But as some critics have suggested, the American philanthropic tradition reached a crossroads arising from the broader context of American diplomacy and from unprecedented criticism from abroad and at home.
The advent of America's hyperpower status since the collapse of the Soviet Union led many to turn a critical eye toward the United States and its philanthropy. As the hegemonic power in the world, even American allies and friends sought to portray the United States as part of the problem, not the solution. American missionaries were criticized as self-righteous meddlers and cultural imperialists and U.S. foreign aid as philanthropic imperialism. Foundations came under attack, as when missionaries were criticized for accepting tainted Rockefeller oil money. Critics suggested that American philanthropy was corrupted by excessively close connections to U.S. foreign policy. Some foreign critics interpreted American philanthropy as the last refuge of Western colonialism.
Some accusations were true enough, but the goals of salvation, survival, or modernization, were always among American philanthropy's goals, and the foundations, like the missionaries, emphasized the unity of mankind and tried to downgrade the importance of nationalism, political frontiers, and political differences. Such attitudes were reflected in practice, for not all private charities cooperated with the U.S. government, and most had reservations. Fidel Castro's victory in Cuba in 1959 moved the Ford Foundation to direct a major effort toward Latin America. Still, the philanthropic ideal remained deeply rooted in the American people.
Far more significant than any politicizing of philanthropy has been the continued influence of the philanthropic ideal on the conduct of American foreign relations. Persistent hope for liberal causes were exemplified in the nineteenth century by James Monroe and Richard Rush during the French and Latin American revolutions, in the reception accorded the Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth in the United States in 1851, and in Daniel Webster's attacks upon the Habsburg Empire. Moreover, the U.S. view that expanding trade has advanced civilization informed early American commercial treaties with the Islamic world and the Far East and U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Although open to charges of racism, an important domestic philanthropic concern underlay the founding of Liberia in 1847, as did a genuine desire to enhance the welfare of African Americans. Persistent American belief in self-determination gave American policy an anticolonial bias and led to diplomatic support for weak regimes against their more powerful oppressors.
President Jimmy Carter's emphasis on human rights during the second half of the 1970s was well received around the world and seemed to be an extension or reflection of earlier pronouncements of his predecessors. Early in the twentieth century, Woodrow Wilson had noted that it was "a very perilous thing to determine the foreign policy of a nation in terms of material interest"; as Wilson had led the American nation into World War I, he had defined American war aims as seeking "no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make." In later periods of crisis, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the Four Freedoms to the world, and his successor, Harry S. Truman, noted that "it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation," while John F. Kennedy in the 1960s promised that America would "pay any price … to assure the survival and the success of liberty." At times, however, philanthropy has been ill advised; at times change has proved destabilizing, as expectations rose faster than performance. Often results did not materialize, as custom proved resistant and ruling groups were averse to the American plan. Some recipients were resentful of gifts and donations, feeling that being unable to reciprocate to a gift from the United States has brought dishonor upon them. Indeed, it would be possible to write about U.S. philanthropy from the perspective of recipients rather than donors and arrive at much different conclusions.
As critics have noted, a danger of both foreign aid and philanthropy has been entanglement in the local politics and power struggles occasioned by wars, famines, and natural disasters. In Africa, CARE unwittingly assisted a Somali dictator in building a political and economic power base; and the United Nations, Save the Children, and many other groups provided raw materials for ethnic rivalries. A case of frustrated ambitions has been that of India, where an assistance program measured in billions of dollars turned out to be a holding operation, ending in mutual disillusionment, even before population explosion, limited resources, and an energy crisis suggested a very different future.
Some critics have rejected American foreign aid and private philanthropy abroad, but they have failed to acknowledge the good that has been achieved, as in education and health care. Faced by such critics, some have suggested that, if America perfected its own ideals at home, perhaps America's greatest gift to the twenty-first century would be its example rather than its philanthropic aid packages and coercive powers. So, perhaps it is now possible, given current skepticism, to achieve a new balance, one that recognizes the virtue of limiting American political intervention abroad and yet acknowledges the genuine achievements of America's philanthropic tradition. And while seeking a new balance, it may be useful to keep in mind Bill Gates's insight that it is at least as difficult to give money away as it is to make money.