November 15, 2018

Assessing America's Indo-Pacific Budget Shortfall

By Eric Sayers

Budgets are policy in Washington. Setting new trends in Pentagon and State Department funding is a tall order, so when they do emerge, they are the strongest indication of a growing consensus within an administration and Congress of shifting foreign policy priorities. Witness the Reagan defense buildup of the 1980s, the post-Cold War “peace dividend” drawdown in the 1990s, the post-9/11 defense buildup from 2001 to 2009, and the more-recent (but still unrealized) emphasis on high-end warfare and offset strategies.

Now, let’s turn to the Indo-Pacific. Beginning in 2011, the Obama administration talked about rebalancing America’s time, energy, and resources to Asia. The Trump administration followed suit and released two strategy documents that made their priorities absolutely clear. Yet today there is a large and persistent gap between the level of importance the U.S. government has attached to the Indo-Pacific and what annual appropriations continue to prioritize at the State Department and Pentagon. A bipartisan consensus has emerged to the extent that major foreign policy speeches and strategy documents now conclude that the Indo-Pacific is the central organizing principle for the U.S. government, but you would not know it by reading the last two administrations’ budget submissions. If budgets are truly policy, the administration and Congress have a long way to go. However, there is an opportunity to align budgets with strategy pronouncements in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2020 submission, the first submission to be built entirely after the release of the new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy.

The prioritization of the Indo-Pacific in State Department funding is not a new dilemma, nor does the blame fall only on the executive branch. Take 2017, for example. After the Trump administration had proposed cutting foreign military financing grants to replace it with a loan program, Congress rejected the proposal and restored many of the cuts in the final consolidated appropriations act. However, while significant funds were added back for countries like Ukraine and Jordan, in a move that went largely unnoticed, the final appropriations bill restored almost no funding for the Indo-Pacific. Despite emerging leadership on the region in Congress, this event was a stark reminder of the limited consideration that the region receives compared to other pressing interests in Europe and the Middle East.

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.