Gutting the State Department is a Recipe for Disaster
James Robert “Rob” DuBois
White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has called the new proposed economic plan "a hard-power budget."
I would call it demonstrably ineffective, if it is based on a preoccupation with “hard power.” Too hard is not right, just like too soft was not right in recent years. Many supporters of the new administration express a frustration that America is weaker, and more vulnerable, as a result of the Obama administration’s neglecting hard power.
I agree with that criticism.
Brutes are emboldened by softness, and we’ve seen a rise in anti-U.S. aggressive ambition among foreign powers and non-state actors, alike. The problem is, veering to an opposite extreme is not an effective solution to a crisis of imbalance. You don’t move all the wet laundry to the other side of the washer and expect the banging to go away.
I commend President Trump, separately, for demanding recommendations on trimming fat at Defense (even as he intends to increase military spending by a tenth). But a purely "hard-power budget" disregards the immense parallel good we can do - at minimal expense - to alleviate suffering and to empower global partners, and therefore ourselves, through diplomacy and development.
This budget proposes to gut State by a full third. And the State Department already traditionally receives only about 10% of what the Defense Department does. Rather than amputate this way, it would be better to enforce a similar demand for cost-cutting at State. Let elimination of actual wasteful spending drive reductions, while maintaining State’s ability to conduct critical operations of engagement with a world in trouble.
Foreign assistance, as one area of the State Department’s mission set, is altruistic. It is "morally right" to extend a hand to desperate global neighbors as we would in our own local neighborhood. But far more important for this conversation is that it is practical to develop and maintain international goodwill. Our brand-new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who at the time was General James Mattis, USMC, testified in 2013 that funding the State Department prevents war:
Then-General Mattis continued, “I think it’s a cost-benefit ratio. The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.”
We absolutely should ensure that our destructive capacity is rock solid, and smartly designed around an accurate assessment of threat...and we absolutely should broadcast that fact of our strength, to eliminate speculation by opportunistic adversaries. That’s smart. Weakness invites brutes like honey draws bears.
AND… (I wrote an entire chapter in Powerful Peace under the title of this powerful little word)… and we need to make sure we are setting conditions worldwide to best support our interests. We don’t do that by threats alone. The concept of “soft power,” contrasted to “hard power,” is that we can accomplish as much or more through a benevolent, cooperative approach among individuals or nations as through the use of force. Using these in an effective balance is “smart power.” Smart power is infinitely adaptable in proportions, and in specific tools used, but neither soft nor hard power is effective in isolation.
The ultimate potential U.S.-personal tragedy here is not even the millions of kids worldwide who would suffer needlessly where we could help easily and smartly. The ultimate U.S.-personal tragedy in this case is the millions of American kids who will be less secure as ISIS and others expand recruiting based on "America's abandonment of populations in need.” That’s just one example of consequences pulled from my own experience base, because I’ve spent much of my career in counter-terrorism and communicating for influence. They do it, too. Very well.
If you had to guess, what proportion of our GDP would you say goes to foreign assistance today? You don't have to guess, because I'll tell you as I told numerous Congressmen and staffers when I conducted informational Hill visits with the US Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC). It's less than 1%. Our national leaders, and possibly you, often assumed the figure was somewhere between 10%-30%. If that were the case, cutting a third would make a big difference in realigning our national checking account.
But one-third of three-quarters of 1% is one-quarter of 1% of GDP, to be returned to the government coffers in the example of foreign assistance. That’s 0.25%. That might not even cover the pay increases Congress will inevitably award itself this year. And what we lose for these inconsequential savings speaks directly to the fair question I was asked in social media this week: “Why do we give our money out to other countries when we are so in the hole ourselves?”
We should continue to provide a tiny sliver of our resources to foreign assistance because it is morally right. More importantly for this argument’s sake, however, we should continue to “fund the State Department fully” because it’s practical...consider our global standing if America were to flatly turn its back on famine, genocide, and internally displaced persons.
I doubt most people would walk past a starving family if they could provide a meal for barely the price of one fancy coffee out of a week's expenditures. We should continue to do our little part because we have economic power many other countries don't, because it comes at very small actual cost to us, and because to not do our little part to help those in need is to abandon what it means to be America.