DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump's budget proposal is all about hard power, increasing U.S. military might while slashing aid to other countries, the thinking being there are enough problems to deal with at home. But these historic cuts in foreign aid stand in contrast to the dramatic increases under the last Republican president, George W. Bush. He dedicated billions to combating HIV/AIDS in Africa with a program called PEPFAR, which so far has avoided Trump's chopping block. Bush used a recent trip to Africa to highlight that program's work, and he shared a memory with us.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I think the most meaningful moment for me was going to a maternity ward in Namibia and seeing a roomful of ladies, most of whom, if not all, had the AIDS virus, and every one of their babies was born without AIDS.
GREENE: The president and I were speaking in Dallas earlier this week. He was fresh off that trip, and I asked him what he would say to someone who is unemployed in the U.S., someone who might need aid but is watching all this money flow to foreign places.
BUSH: Look, we can't solve every problem, and I would tell the person who is out of work, hopefully there's enough aid there to help you transition. But, you know, the idea of turning our back on a pandemic that would have wiped out an entire generation of people, I don't think is in the spirit of the United States.
GREENE: He also argues that foreign aid helps with national security.
BUSH: When you have an entire generation of people being wiped out and the free world turns its back, it provides a convenient opportunity for people to spread extremism and America didn't care about you. We do, and therefore, I believe in this case that it is - it's in our national security interest, as well as in our moral interest.
GREENE: Andrew Natsios, who ran USAID...
GREENE: ...For you, said on our air recently that some of the proposed cuts to foreign aid are an attack on Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush because you were among the leading increasers of foreign aid of all presidents. Is this an attack on your legacy?
BUSH: Oh, I don't think it's an attack at all. I mean, I don't, you know, first of all, I'm not real comfortable with legacy. That kind of assumes that I'm doing this in order to protect my own reputation, and that's the last reason one would take on a humanitarian mission. But I do know that we set priorities in my administration. And one such priorities was human life on the continent of Africa. And it surprised people. You know, of all places, why? And the answer is is that had nothing been done about this pandemic and a whole generation died, which would have created enormous instability on the continent of Africa and America had done nothing, I would have, you know, I'd been ashamed.
GREENE: You use the term moral, and I think about moral leadership. How do you use moral leadership when you were, say, negotiating with other foreign leaders? I mean, how does that come up? How does it help you?
BUSH: Well, I think that there are certain principles which should guide decision-making for a president. One such principle was that we're all God's children, and every life is precious. To me, that's a moral statement. And so when it comes to, you know, China, for example, I - my diplomacy with them was very quiet, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, but every meeting, you know, I would talk to them about religious liberty.
GREENE: But in a meeting, like, with Hu Jintao or Vladimir Putin, is there a way you can explain to people that doing the right thing for the world gives you some sort of better place in those conversations?
BUSH: Not really. Some of them - I mean, some of these dudes are pretty cynical (laughter).
GREENE: Well, then does soft power not work?
BUSH: I think soft power definitely can work. But, you know, it depends on who you're dealing with. Some people are so intent upon power and keeping power that it's very difficult to conduct soft power.
GREENE: Because I think about some of the things we're debating today - travel bans, a border wall - and what message that is sending the rest of the world and whether you think that undermines moral leadership or whether maybe Americans don't believe that moral leadership is something that's effective, and they might say, you know, do those things to protect me.
BUSH: Well, you know, it's - I have been relatively quiet during my post-presidency, but I have given several speeches on the dangers of isolationism and protectionism. And our country goes through these kind of, I guess, mood swings is the right way to say it. And it seems to me that in both parties there was an isolationist and protectionist sentiment. On the other hand, the reality is that the job sometimes undermined those sentiments. And so I guess I would caution patience and see how policy evolves from this point forward with the current administration.
GREENE: I spoke to the former president at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. Elsewhere in the show, he'll talk about immigration and also about his new book of oil paintings.