NEW YORK -- He never appeared completely comfortable, but his message was uttered with conviction: to give parts of the world an economic shot in the arm, free enterprise -- not foreign aid as it is today -- must spread unfettered.
That's the message that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney delivered here on the final day of the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting to a room full of international dignitaries, industry titans and political kingmakers. The Republican U.S. presidential candidate used the event to offer a peek into the worldview he would hold as the country's top executive as he campaigns toward Election Day in November, and he peppered his remarks with a bootstrapping ethos that urged America to take control of its destiny by letting others take control of theirs.
"Free enterprise can not only make us better off financially," Romney said to a room of hundreds packed into the Sheraton Hotel's Metropolitan Ballroom, "it can make us better people."
The former governor outlined his argument by citing the Boston-based youth service program City Year. (He helped preserve it from defunding, he said, after former U.S. president Bill Clinton asked him to after leaving office.) Preserving it enabled people to work for themselves and create a positive result -- improved schools, he said.
The U.S. should take the same approach with its foreign aid, often ineffective as currently structured, he said.
"You endeavor not only to comfort and assuage the pains of the afflicted," Romney said, "but also to change lives, through freedom, through free enterprise, through entrepreneurship, and through the incomparable dignity that is associated with work."
There are problems holding the United States back. Using foreign aid as an example, Romney said the U.S. needs to better leverage the "power of partnerships," the "transformative nature" of free enterprise and the "abundant resources" of the private sector to make efforts more effective.
The U.S. needs to focus on aid that "elevates people and brings about lasting change in communities and nations," he said.
"A lot of the foreign aid efforts that we put in place some years ago were designed at a time when governmental assistance was 70 percent of the resources flowing to developing nations," he said. "Today, 82 percent of the resources that flow to developing nations come from the private sector, not the governmental sector."
This would be a priority for a Romney administration, he said.
It's also a matter of taking control of America's destiny. "We somehow feel we're at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events," he said. Citing the events around the Arab Spring, Romney said that young people in that region have greater access to information than ever before -- and they just want to work. Enter American "Prosperity Pacts," which would "foster work and enterprise in the Middle East" in a way that existing U.S. foreign aid does not.
"The aim of a much larger share of our [foreign] aid must be the promotion of work and the fostering of free enterprise," he said. "Nothing we can do as a nation will change lives more effectively and permanently."
And what not to do? Implement aid that creates a culture of reliance on America's deep pockets. "Aid can't sustain an economy," Romney said, but an assistance program that "helps unleash free enterprise" can create "enduring prosperity."
"Economic freedom is the only force in history," he said, "that has lifted people out of poverty and helped them stay out of poverty."
Photo: Paul Morse/CGI