As President Obama tackles enormous foreign policy challenges, he would be well-advised to extract good ideas from past administrations and carry forward this "better part of history."
At least one example comes from the Eisenhower administration, a time when the Cold War and nuclear weapons' fears dominated the world scene. During this turbulent period, President Eisenhower called for a peace conference. Representatives from different countries gathered to discuss topics like school lunches. Yes. That's right. School lunches. This was not the typical peace conference. It was not about disarmament, but rather food to fight hunger abroad.
In May 1959, Argentina, Canada, Australia, and France joined the United States at a conference to explore using food "in the interest of reinforcing peace." And today Obama should not relent in his own exploration of Food for Peace when crafting his foreign policy.
Fighting hunger was a part of the Eisenhower administration strategy right from the get-go. Just months into office, riots broke out against Soviet and Communist domination in East Germany. Where there is chaos, you are certain to find food shortages and this was certainly the case for East Germany. The U.S. responded quickly with 15 million dollars worth of shipments to Berlin to fight hunger. Eisenhower stated, "we asked no remuneration, no return, no exchange of goods. We just put it there for humanitarian purposes."
Harold Stassen, one of Ike's assistants during the crisis, wrote: "The East Germans remembered who fed them when they starved and remain grateful to this day....the window of freedom those millions of East Germans glimpsed during this period, and their brutalization by the Soviet oppressors, laid the foundations for the political events of 1989. The whole world can thank Dwight Eisenhower for reaching out to "feed the hungry Germans."
The following year Eisenhower signed Public Law 480, known today as Food for Peace. This became the mechanism for sending U.S. surplus food abroad to fight hunger. But Food for Peace was not well-known, making it harder to gain public support and input, not to mention showcasing it as America's best public diplomacy tool.
Food for Peace coordinator Don Paarlberg tried to spread the word including having Eisenhower make an address on September 1st, 1960. In the speech, Ike noted, "The world cups its ear to hear the rattling of rockets. It listens less closely to the sounds of peace and well-being which emanate from the slow but steady improvement in world health and nutrition."
While the young Food for Peace program was unsung during Ike's day, there is no reason for that oversight today. Obama and the technological organization that won his election can also bring world hunger issues to the very forefront of America's agenda. Like Ike, Obama can give a Food for Peace address to highlight the current global hunger menace, its threat to American security, and America's tools to fight it.
For the long-term, Obama should appoint a "hunger czar" as stipulated by the Global Food Security Act. Having a white house advisor on global hunger issues would be critical to making sound foreign policy judgments in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and many other countries. As long as hunger and poverty exist in those countries, there cannot be peace.
The Obama administration should work with the international community to build a global school lunch program and a separate feeding program for infant children. These may not be headline-grabbing initiatives, but they are the most important in terms of peace building. We saw that after World War II when the school lunches provided by the U.S. Army, UNRRA, Catholic Relief Services, UNICEF and others served as a foundation for rebuilding Europe.
In the Food for Peace years, school lunches were critical in helping many countries like Italy and Japan. A "school lunches for peace" partnership with the charity CARE was developed during Ike's years and into the Kennedy administration. CARE helped provide school meals to many countries including Poland, Korea, and India. Today, Gaza, the West Bank, Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Sudan and many others are in need of universal school feeding.
There will be some who will question why the United States should worry about hunger abroad when it has problems of its own at home. With the ongoing financial crisis, it's easy to ignore the desperate needs of those in far away lands.
After World War II, the "Greatest Generation" did not take that approach and helped Europe and Asia fight hunger. Secretary of State George Marshall, realizing that hunger and chaos abroad threatened America's security, stated, "We can act for our own good by acting for the world's good." Today, Nancy Roman of the World Food Programme writes, "To allow, now, the financial crisis to become the excuse for tossing up our hands and watching hunger multiply is foolish at best, tragic at worst."