The United States must be engaged in world affairs to prevent far more costly global instability, a group said as it launched the opening of its 51-member Arkansas Advisory Committee in an event in Little Rock Wednesday (Oct. 11).
Arkansas is the ninth Southern state and the 33rd across the country to open a chapter of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC). Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon is the founding chair.
The coalition says it’s a network of 500 businesses and nongovernmental organizations along with national security and foreign policy experts and leaders in all 50 states.
The group held its 2023 South Summit in Little Rock with a two-hour series of panel discussions headlined by Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., U.N. World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley, who appeared remotely, and Walmart’s Sarah Thorn, senior director, global government affairs. Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of USGLC, said tens of thousands of people were expected to participate online across the South. Future events are being planned elsewhere in Arkansas.
An argument made throughout the summit was that U.S. engagement is a good investment. The federal government’s international affairs budget only composes 1% of the budget, but it advances American interests, keeps American servicemen out of harm’s way, and prevents hunger, mass migration, and other ills overseas. Moreover, it opens up markets for Arkansas products.
“It doesn’t matter what you represent, whether you’re a senator or you’re a businessperson or what the entity is, the whole world looks at us for leadership,” Boozman said. “When the Americans walk in the room, again, people listen.”
However, he acknowledged that foreign aid doesn’t necessarily have enthusiastic support among his constituents.
“It is bipartisan, yet to be honest I get lots of mail about all kinds of things, and nobody really writes to me and says we need to dramatically increase foreign aid,” he said.
In her opening remarks, Schrayer said foreign engagement is especially important to Arkansas, which she said exports $6 billion in global trade of which $4 billion is agriculture. In an interview, she noted that 95% of the world’s consumers live outside the United States.
Boozman, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee and a leader in the Senate Hunger Caucus, said Congress is working on the five-year reauthorization of the Farm Bill. He noted that 40% of Arkansas agriculture products are exported, so trade is important to the success of farm communities.
Walmart’s Thorn represented the world’s largest food retailer. She said her company has found it’s best to work directly with overseas farmers to get food products. In Latin America, “coyotes” have served as middlemen without adding value. About 15-20 years ago, Walmart started going directly to farmers. It provided them market signals related to what crops they should plant, provided standards they should have, and offered advice on how to get products to market. When it started doing this in Central America, farmers made more money and young immigrants returned to their homes.
Walmart made a special effort to empower women. Working with the U.S. Agency for International Development, it made a pledge to train more than 1 million farmers, and 740,000 of those have been women.
Thorn said the effort “matters because we have stores in those regions, and we want the people in those regions to have money in their pockets so that they can come to our stores. And we want to make sure we’re stabilizing communities. … The best way to stabilize communities is to make sure that there’s economic opportunity.”
Thorn said Walmart has moved from seeking environmental sustainability to seeking regeneration, and it does so through a business lens.
“Walmart’s way is to put big, scary goals out there and then chase them,” she said. “And that’s the way you get innovation. So we said we’ll be zero waste. We’ve no idea how we get there, but that’s the kind of thing that helps us is by working with partners, thinking about how we solve these problems, how we make sure that we leave the planet in a better place than we started, and not just the environment but people too.”
Current conflicts came up in the discussion. Boozman said there’s no “moral equivalency” between what’s happened to the Palestinians and the attacks on Israel by Hamas. He said American intelligence can aid Israel in its efforts, and he commended President Biden for his response and show of force.
“Much like 9-11, this is going to affect the world for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Also discussed was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Boozman said Russia’s economy is based on oil while Ukraine’s economy is based on supplying food. When the invasion began, Russia shut down Ukraine’s Black Sea ports in an effort to shut down its economy. After the ports were opened thanks in large part to diplomacy conducted by Beasley, Russia shut down the ports again. Countries in Africa and elsewhere are now suffering from high prices.
Beasley said wealthy countries should be willing to provide foreign aid, if not out of the goodness of their hearts, then out of financial and national security interests. He said the world faces an increasing food shortage.
He said migration to the United States has increased because of food insecurity.
“If people don’t have food, they will do what they need to do to feed their children,” he said. “And so if we can come in and strategically provide food and sustainable programs, resilience programs, it’s a thousand times cheaper than not doing anything and the floodgates open and we have war, conflict, mass migration, destabilization of nations.”
When he joined the World Food Programme, 80 million people worldwide were headed to starvation, and he hoped to put the organization out of business. Instead, the numbers have grown to 350 million people amidst war, climate shocks, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The World Food Programme raised $14.2 billion last year and reached 160 million people. This year, it’s raising less than half that amount as more people are headed to starvation while Ukraine and Israel take all the attention.
Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Zook, a member of the Advisory Committee, said foreign trade represents opportunity for Arkansas manufacturers and farmers. It also creates peace.
“We say, ‘Love your neighbor.’ I say, ‘Love your customer,’” he said. “If you’re trading with somebody, you’re less inclined to want to kill them. Killing your customers is not a business plan for success.”