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American leadership abroad means prosperity and security at home | Opinion

American development abroad must continue to keep us thriving at home.

Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), center, and Chris Coons (D-Del.), right, speak with TK PERSON at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda.
Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), center, and Chris Coons (D-Del.), right, speak with TK PERSON at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda.Read moreCourtesy Coons / Corker

As one of us departs and the other prepares for a new Congress, our eight years together working across the aisle – one Republican, one Democrat – demonstrate that the right thing to do for our values is also the smart thing to do for America.

Last year, we traveled together to Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda, where more than 270,000 innocent people are bearing the burden of fighting, famine, and failed governance. We saw firsthand the role the U.S. government plays in providing lifesaving assistance and identified ways we can make our food aid programs more efficient and effective. Just as important, our journey underscored the common purpose that can overcome the widening gulf separating Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

We may not agree on everything, but we are united behind our investment in America's development and diplomacy programs, which save lives, cure diseases, and return a dividend of peace and prosperity many times over. Even in a divided Congress, we have successfully legislated together to modernize U.S. global food assistance programs, bring transparency to foreign aid, and create opportunities for economic growth. These priorities are not partisan, but represent what we, as Americans, have always stood for – a world in which democracy is defended, universal values upheld, and economic opportunity advanced.

As a new Congress prepares to take its place, we share with you three lessons learned from working together on what makes America strong at home and overseas. At a time when we face threats to our democratic institutions and competing economic models around the world, these lessons — and using them to inform America's role in the world — are more important than ever.

First, we learned there is a smart way to do the right thing — reducing bureaucracy — and it unites us across party lines. One of the bipartisan success stories of the past two decades is the way Congress partnered with both Republican and Democratic administrations to rewrite America's global development agenda. Congress made development policy less bureaucratic and more effective, and as a result, we established new markets in countries from Africa to Asia to Latin America whose populations will be customers for American businesses for generations.

Second, Congress and the executive branch have to find more ways to work together. Similar to how Congress and the White House cooperated to launch PEPFAR — America's signature HIV/AIDS initiative — a decade and a half ago, we staked out partnerships with the Trump administration because we all want to see America succeed.

Like us, the administration saw China making a concerted effort to expand economic inroads in Africa while U.S. development tools stagnated. Last month, Congress passed, and President Trump signed into law, our Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act. Our bill empowers America to do well by doing good — and strengthens our hand to compete against China. The BUILD Act will create a new U.S. development finance institution to promote economic growth in developing countries by leveraging $60 billion in U.S. business investment at no cost to the American taxpayer. This will create new opportunities for our businesses abroad, while helping to bring people out of poverty, and advancing global stability.

Our third and final lesson builds on the second: Democrat or Republican, we all need to recognize that American leadership abroad is not a favor we do for others, but a foundation of our strength. If we fail to lead, those who do not share our values will fill the vacuum. China, in particular, is seeking to claim the mantle of international leadership. Beijing has doubled its diplomatic budget over five years and will spend over a trillion dollars on its "One Belt One Road" initiative – seven times the size of the Marshall Plan in real dollars.

The United States must prepare for the long term. We pay now, or we pay later. We should remember the words of General, now Secretary, Jim Mattis: "America's got two fundamental powers: the power of intimidation and the power of inspiration."

His words remind us of the twin engines of American power: Intimidation is sometimes needed, but inspiration is always invaluable. We can only fly high if both those engines are powered up. Anyone who has ever marveled at the troops who make Tennessee's Fort Campbell the home of the "Screaming Eagles" or stood at attention at Dover Air Force Base as the flag-draped casket of a brave American arrives home, understands the power and stakes of our military might. But we feel just as strongly that if there's one weapon in our arsenal we must protect, it is the one that guarantees we only use that power as a last resort: the combination of diplomacy and development.

We hope our collaboration shows bipartisan cooperation to advance American interests and values is possible and that our efforts lay the groundwork for future progress.

Chris Coons (D) is a U.S. senator for Delaware, and Bob Corker (R) is a senator for Tennessee.