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As policymakers in Washington seek to compromise over the federal budget, foreign aid is especially vulnerable to the proclaimed intention of reaching a balanced U.S. budget in seven years. Already much reduced in relative terms since America's more generous foreign-assistance grants of 25 years ago, funds for foreign aid are certain to shrink further despite the pleas of leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac, who argued before the Congress on Feb. 1 that increased American aid was critical to global stability.

Some members of Congress have proposed reducing aid by 40 percent overall while still protecting the two most favored recipients, Israel and Egypt, which in effect would devastate U.S. capacity to help the developing world. While knowledgeable Americans are aware that foreign assistance constitutes a very small part of federal spending, and that its entire elimination would hardly make a dent in the budget deficit, that fact is not recognized by most citizens or new Republican legislators.What, then, should be done to ameliorate the impact of these cuts upon American global interests and influence? The United States should take advantage of this otherwise unwelcome budgetary crisis to rethink its strategy toward the developing world. Instead of spreading its attention and resources too thinly, America should instead concentrate on improving support to a few key nations - the "pivotal states."

In an ideal world, no doubt, helping all poor- and medium-income countries in their struggle against the testing demographic, environmental and socio-economic conditions they will face over the next few years should be the aim of U.S. aid. But since the current political climate excludes such enlightened realism, it is better to focus upon bolstering those states whose fate affects regional stability and U.S. national interests.

For the present, I would designate the developing world pivotal states to be Mexico and Brazil; Algeria, Egypt and South Africa; Turkey; India and Pakistan; and Indonesia. This is not a sacred, fixed list and it might well change over time. But all of them face severe internal stresses and, because of their relative size and/or geopolitical importance, a deterioration in their condition could have far wider repercussions. By contrast, their success - which could simply be defined as their continued economic progress, environmental security, and political stability - would bolster their surrounding regions' prosperity and benefit American trade and investment.

All of these states deserve more focused attention by U.S. policymakers and agencies, even at the cost of reduced attention for the rest of the developing world (though I assume here that Israel will continue to get special treatment.)

By advancing the twin argument that the fate of a select number of pivotal states in the developing world is important to American interests and that those countries are threatened less by external aggressors than by overpopulation, migration, environmental damage and social strains, it is possible to bridge the conceptual divide in the post-Cold-War debate over "old" versus "new" security threats.

Mainstream policymakers, focused upon the future of Russia or the rise of China, still consider non-military security issues peripheral; whereas those concerned about environmental and demographic trends resist the realist emphasis upon power and the need to prioritize security objectives. A pivotal-states strategy would encourage the integration of "new" security issues into the traditional state-centered framework and lend greater clarity to the making of foreign policy.

People would understand why, from the viewpoint of American national interests, that what happens in, say, Algeria is much more important than what happens in Liberia.

This discriminate strategy would also reflect U.S. traditions. Unlike, say, the Scandinavian countries, our foreign-assistance policy has not chiefly focused on "the poorest of the poor," nor has it, like the French, centered on obliging Francophone client-states. The Cold War always configured American aid disproportionately in favor of specific targets - Marshall Aid for Europe, support for Egypt - that would help us beat the Soviets. Today more than ever, it would be easier to promote U.S. assistance abroad on secular, realist terms, leaving it to other richer governments to fund the really poor of the world.

If that seems a cruel remark to an American public that believes it is the most generous of the world, yet in fact allocates the lowest percentage of gross domestic product of the rich nations to development aid, then perhaps this call to help the pivotal states might achieve one further result.

By drawing attention to the awful nonmilitary pressures facing Mexico, Brazil, Egypt, India and certain other key states, and articulating why they need enhanced U.S. attention, such arguments could actually awaken Americans to the folly of trying to turn our backs on the rest of the world.

Were that to happen, the Congress would come to see the need for a positive, proactive strategy toward the developing world instead of cutting what is a relatively modest investment in future international stability.