These past few weeks were not kind to the State Department, even before the news last week that the White House had asked State to cut 37 percent from its budget. If State employees had any questions left about the value the president and his key advisors place on their work, this request laid those to rest. Interestingly, while the president spent minimal time during his joint address to Congress last week on foreign policy, his team spun his remarks as the introduction of a vision of principled U.S. engagement and leadership around the world.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley put out this statement after the president’s remarks: “President Trump spoke for a strong America that is engaged internationally. That’s the kind of new American leadership our friends around the world have been waiting for.” It’s succinct and pithy, but it has two major flaws.
For one, whatever views one holds on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, the last eight years saw robust U.S. engagement around the world, and leadership that America’s friends and partners welcomed and deeply appreciated. My colleagues and I heard this time and again from diplomatic counterparts, who welcomed the Obama administration’s reengagement as a constructive partner on a broad range of issues. In fact, in 2016, according to one index, the United States led the world in ability to use “soft power” to influence other countries.
Second, and more fundamentally, the ability for the United States to engage and show leadership on the world stage depends on a strong State Department and on the ability to influence and persuade. That ability, in turn, relies on the United States being a committed partner in solving the world’s problems, so that when America comes calling for help — to build a coalition to fight the Islamic State, to rally together to fight Ebola, to build the strongest set of sanctions ever imposed on Iran and North Korea, or to make commitments to shore up U.N. peacekeeping — it is knocking on an open door. It’s easy, but ultimately facile, to think that a small group of advisors in the White House could take the place of the thousands of men and women who serve on the diplomatic front lines. Yet between Trump’s statement last week that he may not fill many of the currently open positions throughout the federal government to his request that State cut back its work by almost 40 percent, it seems like Trump and his team believe that they will be able to lead on the world stage, and be strongly engaged, even without a team of diplomats to do that work around the world every day, armed with the resources needed to exert influence and leverage.
Even a cursory review shows why the Trump administration can’t accomplish its own stated objectives without a fully funded State Department. Just this week, the president signed version 2.0 of his refugee/immigration/travel ban executive order. But the proposed huge cutback of U.S. humanitarian and development assistance will actually lead to more migrants and refugees seeking refuge in Europe, Canada, and the United States. The Trump administration has put an early focus on a renewed counter-Islamic State efforts, which less funding for digital diplomacy will hurt. Indeed, any effective counter-Islamic State strategy necessarily requires the State Department to step in, to help rebuild cities retaken from the group, to create counter-messaging, and to do the diplomacy to keep the 60-plus member anti-Islamic State coalition together and committed. Trump often speaks about persuading partners to step up and shoulder more of the burden, but if the United States cuts back on foreign military financing, it will have fewer capable partners around the world, leading ultimately to more burden on America. Diplomacy, crisis management, and conflict prevention — all led by the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development — are essential to preventing wars. Put simply, less diplomacy means more war, which is something Trump has said he wants to avoid.
Some detail about what the White House has proposed cutting have now leaked, but we still don’t know enough about what might be on the chopping block. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is reportedly sympathetic to the president’s goal of major cutbacks at State, but is asking for flexibility in how, where, and when to make budget cuts. Although several Republican senators have indicated they will not support massive cuts to State’s budget, what will now follow is some sort of negotiation, during which parts of the State Department and USAID are in fact likely to face substantial cuts, even if not on the order of 40 percent.
The combined State Department/USAID budget for fiscal year 2016 was $54.6 billion, of which around $17 billion was for operating expenses, including embassy security, staff salaries, recurring expenditures (for example, treaty-based assessed contributions to international organizations), protecting American citizens overseas, diplomatic and consular activities, and more.
Bureaus at State have reportedly been asked to find ways to cut back on their operating expenses, though there is little detail about where a 37 percent decrease might be found. News reports indicate a possible intention to cut back on embassy security personnel, perhaps in conjunction with closing down certain overseas missions altogether. If the Trump administration is serious about deconstructing the administrative state, in the words of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, we should expect staff cuts at State and USAID, and obviously if entire programs are wiped out, as is expected, layoffs will follow. Word is that the administration is also looking for serious cuts to U.N. peacekeeping contributions and to some of the assessed funding for international organizations. (This includes U.S. treaty-based commitments to the U.N., NATO, and the other 60-plus international organizations in which the United States is a member.)
The remaining almost $36 billion of the fiscal year 2016 State/USAID budget represents the foreign assistance portion, and here a bit more detail has gotten out about where the administration is considering making cuts. The OMB reportedly asked for a 60 percent reduction in economic and development assistance, a 36 percent cut in humanitarian funding, and a 20 percent cut in global health funding. Climate related financing, including for the Green Climate Fund, could be zeroed out altogether. Everything from funding for climate and environment-related activities, funding for programs for women and girls, voluntary contributions to international organizations, development and humanitarian assistance, migration and refugee assistance, global health funding, human rights funding, education and cultural exchange programs, and more could be at risk under the White House plan.
We have fewer specifics on some other foreign assistance accounts, though they are presumably all on the chopping block to some extent. These encompass funding for USAID’s operations (including the Peace Corps and the Millennium Challenge Corporation), international security assistance (including counter-narcotics and law enforcement, nonproliferation, peacekeeping and other international military training, and foreign military sales); counter-Islamic State efforts, multilateral development banks, food aid, and more.
Even without knowing specifics, several things about the OMB’s opening gambit to the State Department are clear and troubling. It suggests rather plainly how little value the White House places on the Department’s work. But foreign policy is hard, nuanced, and sensitive, and as Jim Goldgeier and Elizabeth Suanders noted in a smart piece for Foreign Affairs last week, the best in foreign policy is frequently invisible, carried out by diplomats under the radar, often over a period of years. It isn’t conducted via tweet, and can’t rely solely on a small set of political advisors. You may never see clear results — but the results are nonetheless critical to U.S. national security. It’s not only that the funded programs and activities help protect against state collapse, resolve conflicts, fight terrorism, protect the climate, save lives, and pull people out of poverty, but also that the United States’s ability to influence and persuade overseas is based on the investments it makes, the people it sends abroad to represent the country in embassies and missions around the world, and the power of example.
Yes, remaining a leader in development, humanitarian, and international organization funding is the morally right thing to do. But it’s also the self-interested thing to do: It buys the United States leverage and pays real dividends in terms of securing support for U.S. priorities down the road. Funding for international exchange programs — also reportedly under consideration for cut or eliminated altogether — similarly represents a small upfront investment that pays dividends many times over. Leaders of other countries who are American-educated make better partners and citizens of other countries who are American-educated are some of the best proselytizers for the U.S. system of government and way of life. That kind of long-term benefit and value is irreplaceable.
Diplomacy is painstaking and time-consuming work. Almost no matter where they occur, massive cuts to State Department accounts will make U.S. diplomatic efforts less successful, exacerbate conflict and crisis across the globe, and quite possibly lead to more people dying around the world — whether for lack of humanitarian assistance; decreased funding to combat major infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis; or reduced efforts to prevent and end conflicts. Quiet but persistent diplomacy, together with the targeted commitment of resources, helps sustain alliances. Alliances ensure that the United States doesn’t have to shoulder the full burden of military engagements like Afghanistan, Iraq, or countering the Islamic State, and they protect both the international order that keeps America and its close friends safe and the rules of the road that facilitate global commerce.
Quiet but persistent diplomacy, backed up by resources as needed, gives the United States leverage — for example, to persuade other countries to maintain sanctions against Russia for its misadventures in Ukraine — and helps it impose and implement the multilateral sanctions regimes, such as the sanctions against Iran, which led it to negotiate an end to its nuclear program. When it comes to battling insurgencies or addressing other internal security challenges, as Jim Jeffrey noted in a piece for Foreign Policy on State Department reform, “The underlying threats come from political systems — leaders, states, ideological movements — that field kinetic enemies, while sustained support for U.S. interests flows from allied governments, not someone’s counterterrorism force. The military cannot easily deal at those levels; that, rather, is the job of the State Department-led interagency team.”
This type of work requires countless hours spent in foreign ministries around the globe; on airplanes; on phone calls; at conferences; in the U.N. Security Council chamber, the halls of NATO, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the African Union, and the Organization of American States summits; and in bilateral and multilateral security dialogues. This isn’t time wasted, and it’s not all fat that can be cut — not if your endgame is a United States that still has the wherewithal and support to lead on the world stage. These efforts are not always visible, sometimes grueling, and often boring, but they are the bread and butter of the State Department’s work, and they are what ensures that the United States remains the most effective country in the world at influencing partners, friends, and adversaries. To be sure, the State Department could benefit from some smart reforms, as Jeffrey and others have argued. But indiscriminate and overly broad cuts like those the Trump administration is contemplating are no substitute for considered, thoughtful reforms, and would have potentially disastrous consequences.
Cuts on the order of magnitude being discussed would starve the department of the people and resources it needs to operate effectively and to ensure the United States can play the assertive international role that the Trump administration seems to envision. Ultimately, no amount of additional aircraft carriers or fighter jets can take the place of the diplomats who ably represent the United States, and all that it has and hopefully will continue to stand for, on the global stage.
Photo credit: ALEX WONG/Getty Images