by Robert E. Hunter
Last week, President Donald J. Trump began moving from words and executive orders to the basic stuff of foreign policy and national security. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) delivered its budget estimates under the headline: “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” Over the next several months, Congress will decide out how much of this blueprint to use in building the government’s structure for the next fiscal year. This includes the hardware and software and “people-ware” of the tools of American statecraft.
It was no surprise that, as promised, President Trump is asking for a hefty rise in money for the Pentagon, more than 10%, or $52 billion, from the appropriation signed into law by President Barack Obama last December. This brings the total to $639 billion and is the sharpest rise since President Ronald Reagan sought to intimate the Soviet Union during the Cold War. As OMB put it: “This increase alone exceeds the entire defense budget of most countries.”
Less expected, though hinted at for weeks, was an even more significant cut in moneys for diplomacy and development, a full 31%. Hard power wins, and soft power loses—as does, overall, America’s security and influence in the world.
Guns vs. Diplomacy
There is near-consensus in Washington that the military should get more money. The services have been constantly engaged in warfighting for the last 15 years; equipment gets worn out; many men and women in uniform, along with government civilians and private contractors, have served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is a national commitment to counter the Islamic State. And then there’s the future of warfare to consider. Fifteen years is also a long time in the evolution of conflict. In 2001, cyberwarfare was in its infancy, and the role of Special Operations was far smaller than it is today.
This near-consensus has tended to squelch basic questions of national security that should start with “What is it all for?” Indeed, if President Trump does want the United States to be less engaged in conflict abroad, that should not require an increase in military spending. It could even mean a decrease, though that idea has virtually no political traction in today’s Washington (and wouldn’t have If Hillary Clinton had been elected)—even among those who, like most Americans, do not want the United States to become involved in new conflicts. Congress may nibble at the edges of what OMB calls “one of the largest one-year DOD [Department of Defense] increases in American history,” but it will mostly go along with the president and could give him even more military money than he asks for.
But the rise in the defense budget comes out of the hide of other spending that also keeps the nation safe. Of course, the OMB budget is just the start of the bargaining. By his own account, the president sets demands outrageously high then settles for what he wanted in the first place. Further, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle declared the cuts proposed for the State Department and USAID “dead on arrival.” These included some of the most vocal congressional hawks, who also believe that the best way to fight a war is to take steps to keep from having to fight it at all.
The OMB budget hits stewardship for generations yet unborn especially hard. Notably, it “eliminates the Global Climate Change Initiative and fulfills the President’s pledge to cease payment to the United Nation’s climate change programs…” We can’t say that we weren’t warned: the “science-deniers” are now in charge. Slashing these funds along with diplomacy and foreign aid in general is so ludicrous and antithetical to America’s capacity to defend the nation at home and its place in the world—however much that place may be scaled down—as not even to need rebuttal.
US embassies abroad are not stocked with cookie-pushers (except for the big political campaign contributors who buy ambassadorships in desirable foreign locations.) Embassies do the nation’s business in promoting US exports, paving the way for US business, and helping travelling Americans who get in trouble. More important is national security. US embassies do the day-to-day, year-in and year-out work of building and sustaining alliances that provide security not just for others but also for us. USAID employees and their programs help other countries improve their people’s lives and develop and sustain democratic governance, among other things reducing incentives for young people in some poor countries to enlist as terrorists. US Foreign Service Officers around the world vet visa-applicants to try weeding out potential terrorists and criminals. And the list goes on.
These people on the State and USAID payrolls, like their counterparts at DOD, represent the best of America abroad, more than ever a counterweight to the foolishness of some US political figures, now found at the very top. Unfortunately, there is little political constituency either for diplomacy or foreign assistance, until, of course, their absence comes to haunt us here at home.
The new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has not been publicly making this case. He did push back a bit when the White House first bruited taking a machete to his department and its works, even before he settled in to his job. But he has since gotten with the White House program.
In his (tardy) communication to his State and USAID team last week, Tillerson “acknowledges that U.S. engagement must be more efficient, that our aid be more effective, and that advocating the national interests of our country always be our primary mission.” It is true that State can cut excess, including some bureaus created by recent administrations that have more a name than a purpose, along with a host of “special representatives” who mostly get in the way of regular functioning of diplomacy and who have rarely produced success. But taken together, these “excesses” are small-ticket items.
Further, Tillerson committed a blooper: “Additionally, the budget is an acknowledgment that development needs are a global challenge to be met not just by contributions from the United States, but through greater partnership with and contributions from our allies and others.” The United States is indeed the largest foreign aid donor; but it is far from alone in meeting the “global challenge.” As a percentage of GDP, among the 28 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the US stands nineteenth, and if relatively poor Central European countries are not counted, we are even farther down the list! The OMB budget also makes major funding cuts for international agencies, like the World Bank, and for the United Nations, including its peacekeeping operations. Yet these operations are mostly conducted by the world’s last mercenaries, soldiers from some of the world’s poorest countries, thus obviating the need for American troops to take on tasks that the United States could otherwise have to assume.
As former head of a giant multinational oil company, Tillerson must know the worth of non-military US engagement abroad. He also must know that if he fails to stand up for his people, they will begin decamping. Already, many of the civil servants working for him, essential to his department’s functioning, are being forced out by the freeze imposed on renewing contracts. Further, most people at State and USAID get none of the glory of political appointees, but many serve abroad and face risks second only to troops in combat. Rebuilding a team, once decimated, is a slow and painful process: good diplomats do not emerge from nowhere any more than do military officers.
What America Stands to Lose
In slashing spending for non-military national security, there is an added consideration. When candidate and now President Trump talked about “America first,” he suggested that the United States would play a less consequential role in the world than before, the first president since before Pearl Harbor to make such an argument. Unfortunately for his ambition, the time for the United States to pull in its horns abroad passed decades ago. Pearl Harbor ended US isolation. Our deep engagement economically in the outside world, even leaving side our political and security engagements, dramatized by the 9/11 terrorist hijackers, decades ago ended US insulation forevermore. As a businessman, President Trump must know that. Certainly his entire economic and military teams do.
Further, everyone abroad is already listening to what the president says, watching what he does, and reading his budget line-by-line. Less non-military engagement abroad means more room for others to displace American influence. Reduced American influence means less capacity to secure our interests and play the leading role in writing the rules. Unique among the world’s nations, we pay a good deal of our way in the world by printing money rather than having to pay for all our imports with goods and services. Our very standard of living is subsidized by others, who are willing to “hold our financial paper” and keep the US dollar as the globe’s only true reserve currency. They do so in part because the United States could until now be relied on to “export security” as well as goods and services and where possible to “export stability” and play the leading role in fostering a rules-based international order.
Americans have paid much in blood and treasure to enjoy the benefits of keeping most of the world’s travails from our door: one of the best investments the nation has ever made. It may be that what Trump did in his budget and with his inability to control his tongue and tweets is mostly bargaining tactics, though that is by no means clear. But the rest of the world is not waiting to see how this drama plays out. As with people, nations take time to build a reputation for reliability and integrity. It can be dashed quickly, and rebuilding it can be even more difficult than building it to begin with.
By the time that President Trump realizes—if ever—the damage already done to America’s interests and values abroad, undoing it can be at exorbitant cost. Not least, cutting the non-military budget increases the chances that we will be engaged in more, not less, military combat, perhaps in places not even on today’s radar screen.
Photo: Rex Tillerson delivers remarks at the State Department on his first day on the job, courtesy of State Department via Flickr.