A luncheon focused on foreign aid in Atlanta Friday counted a lot of big names among its attendees, but one was missing — at least overtly in the discussion —  Donald Trump. 

The president’s name went unmentioned in more than an hour of discussion focused on the importance of a sustained, responsible U.S. presence around the globe. 

The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition event, headlined by Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, steered clear of hot-button issues like climate change, NAFTA renegotiation and the president’s proposed border wall with Mexico. (See a video of the full luncheon below)

But Mr. Perdue and other speakers readily dove into discussions on the intersection of U.S. aid, economic health and security, honing in on how well-placed development assistance and diplomatic outreach could prevent wars and preserve military gains in existing conflicts. 

An ardent Trump backer, the Republican senator applauded the president’s recent speech on the war in Afghanistan, saying the administration is setting a clear definition of victory in America’s longest war. 

Mr. Perdue pointed to Defense Secretary James Mattis‘s call for talks with the Taliban: “They defined what victory is. Victory is not killing every Taliban. Victory is getting Taliban into a diplomatic conversation,”

Retired Air Force Gen. Richard Hawley agreed, saying the effort had too long plowed on without an “end game.” Though he too avoided using Mr. Trump’s name, the general said he believed the president had outlined the case for a “diplomatic solution.”

“We created a day-to-day ‘ad-hoc-cracy,’” without a strategy, he said. 

Mr. Trump’s speech Aug. 21, however, doesn’t seem to jibe with these interpretations. 

The president said an eventual political settlement with the Taliban is “possible,” but that “nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.” He also added that the U.S. was “not nation-building again,” and that Afghanistan would have to take up more of the burden of its own defense.

Mr. Trump claimed an about-face from his predecessors’ approach in deciding to avoid telegraphing his moves. 

“Conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables — will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will,” the president said. 

Both Mr. Perdue and Gen. Hawley were encouraged at Mr. Trump’s resolve to use “diplomatic, economic and military” tools to win the war. 

They conceded that stabilizing Afghanistan’s fragmented tribal society required a holistic approach to diplomacy, engaging outside players like Pakistan and India, and a sustained commitment to economic development over time.

Either way, the discussion of America’s longest war underscored a broader point that dominated the luncheon: efficient aid programs and economic engagements that improve lives can help forestall costly conflicts.

A military can create temporary security, but it can’t ensure long-term stability without development, Gen. Hawley said. 

“It all has to work together and the fact is, it’s diplomacy that leads, and the rest of us are just tools,” he said. 

Drawing on his experience as a Fortune 500 CEO living and working around the world, Mr. Perdue said the U.S. could not afford to cut itself off.

“If we don’t lead for good in the world, who is?” he said, pointing to Russia’s increasing engagement in Syria and the broadening refugee crises in the Middle East and Europe. 

But Mr. Perdue also emphasized the need to shore up the American economy and rein in the national debt, saying a healthier homeland leads to a strengthened hand in global dealings. 

“We can’t solve every problem off our budget,” he said. 

In his role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Perdue said he has met with heads of state who uniformly desire America take the lead on the global stage, not to disengage.

“We should have learned from 9/11 that isolationism doesn’t work,” he said. 

But the senator didn’t address how these views square with his ardent support for Mr. Trump, who has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, failed to appoint ambassadors to key postings, questioned traditional military alliances and called for substantial budget cuts at the State Department, leaving many at the agency in limbo. 

Mr. Perdue himself has also advocated a firmer stance on  immigration. At the president’s side Aug. 2, he introduced the RAISE act, an immigration bill that would eliminate the green-card diversity lottery, which brings in 50,000 people per year from around the world. It would also cut refugee arrivals to 50,000 and limit the categories of family members that green-card holders can sponsor for permanent residency. 

Designed to promote and preserve the U.S. foreign-aid budget, requested at $37 billion this year, the U.S. Coalition on Global Leadership luncheon focused heavily on the use of public-private partnerships to make sure the limited aid budget is spent more wisely.

They pointed to Power Africa, an initiative launched by the Obama administration, as an example of how public money can be used to de-risk major projects and encourage private investment. 

But four years into a five-year project, the $7 billion initiative is only halfway to its goal of lighting up 20 million households in Africa, and Mr. Trump has not mentioned the initiative publicly since taking office. 

Nonetheless, Coca-Cola Co.’s Michael Goltzman, vice president of public policy, said U.S. government involvement helps do what private companies can’t: improve governance and level the playing field for American companies. 

Coke programs supporting the distribution of medicine in Africa and improving water quality around the world are key for developing healthy communities that fulfill their potential and, in turn, become Coke customers. 

“There is an enormous level of entrepreneurship and creativity in these countries,” Mr. Goltzman said. 

One in five jobs at the Coke headquarters in Atlanta depend on the company’s international business, he added. 

Follow discussion on the event on Twitter here.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...