At $38 billion, last week’s budget deal marks the largest discretionary cut in our nation’s history – yet the shortsighted cuts to foreign aid may actually increase the debt over time by making future military operations more likely. At a time of unparalleled demand for the knowledge and expertise of U.S. diplomats, Foreign Service officers, aid workers and administrators, and peacemakers, the budget deal blunts the very tools needed to prevent conflicts, and sets a dangerous precedent for future budget debates.
By excluding entitlements and defense spending from serious debate, Congress focused solely on the remaining 12 percent of the national budget: non-military discretionary funding. The $38 billion in cuts includes a whopping $8.4 billion at the expense of the State Department, which amounts to 17 percent of its already humble foreign operations budget. Included in these reductions is a nearly $16 million cut to the Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs account, which funds vital efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.
The national debt, on the other hand, will shed a mere .058 percent. In simple terms, this is like cutting toenails off an elephant. As Joseph Nye points out, Congress played up the widespread public notion that foreign aid accounts for a large part of the budget. In fact, it makes up only a speck, about 1 percent annually. It is particularly outrageous that this very same budget deal gives the Department of Defense $5 billion more than it requested, giving lie to Congress’s calls for reductions in defense spending. The $3.3 billion estimated increase in the outlays when emergency funds for Iraq and Afghanistan are included only underscores the enormous cost of war, offsetting nearly all the funds that the budget deal would save.
Cutting foreign aid directly contradicts the goals reiterated by both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton...
In a rare public demonstration of bureaucratic solidarity, they and other officials have increasingly emphasized America’s troubled military-heavy foreign policy, vocally supporting a comprehensive shift toward civilian-led diplomacy and away from use of force. In the past year, strategy reviews by the State Department, Defense Department, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have all stressed lightening our military burden by committing more resources to development and diplomacy. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen stated last month, “Secretaries Clinton and Gates have called for more funding and more emphasis on our soft power, and I could not agree with them more. Should we choose to exert American influence solely through our troops, we should expect to see that influence diminish in time.”
It’s not often that the mindset of our civilian and military leaders is so closely aligned. Unfortunately, Congress’s ears are deaf to those who directly control and execute the operations needed to advance U.S. security interests. The value of soft power is invariably underestimated, since foreign operations generally focus on longer-term initiatives rather than immediate, easily-measurable results. But diplomacy and development are far less expensive than combat operations. By fostering strategic and economic partnerships and strengthening governance, the rule of law, and public health, foreign operations programs help preempt and mitigate the woes that cause violent conflict in the first place.
That the budget cuts will likely cost us a great deal in the future is worrying. That the top decision-makers within State, Defense, and the military are being ignored is troubling. But that Congress continues to spend billions of dollars on defense while severely cutting the civilian tools that are critical to advancing U.S. security is downright alarming. In an age where the greatest threats to our security are posed by shadowy networks of terrorist groups, weak and failing states, the spread of nuclear weapons and materials, and climate change, American leadership must wear more than a military uniform. If Congress truly wants to reduce future costs and decrease the deficit, it must devote more resources to addressing these threats and preventing war. It would be wise for our lawmakers to heed the advice of those they chose to represent America beyond Capitol Hill.