According to White House officials, President Donald Trump’s proposed budget will massively increase defense spending by $54 billion by slashing funds to other federal agencies and programs, with foreign aid singled out as one of the areas that would see “large reductions.” Reportedly the result of a collaboration between White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, the proposed budget specifically targets the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, and the U.S. Department of State for spending cuts. According to officials familiar with Trump’s proposal, the budget calls for 37 percent reductions in the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budgets.
Speaking to the National Governors Association at the White House on Monday morning, President Trump claimed that his budget proposal “puts America first by keeping tax dollars in America” and follows through on his “promise to focus on keeping Americans safe.” However, by unwisely equating spending on the military with overall national security and by reducing critical investments in U.S. leadership abroad, Trump will actually make Americans less safe. More than 100 retired generals and admirals made this clear in a recent letter to leaders in the administration and Congress.
Current defense spending
There are several issues surrounding President Trump’s proposed defense budget increase, starting with the fact that U.S. defense spending is already incredibly high: It currently accounts for more than one-third of the world’s total military expenditures. According to the latest numbers from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United States spent $604.5 billion on defense in 2016, more than four times the next-biggest spender, China, which spent $145 billion, and more than 10 times the third-biggest spender, Russia, which spent $58.9 billion. Further, the U.S. armed forces are already strong. According to Michael O’Hanlon and retired Gen. David Petraeus, “the United States has the best military in the world today, by far. U.S. forces have few, if any, weaknesses”—a situation that is not “likely to change anytime soon.”
Instead of focusing on arbitrary increases in the defense budget that are not tied to specific military requirements and that come at the expense of critical domestic and international programs vital to national security, the Trump administration, Congress, and the Pentagon should focus on how to make current defense expenditures more cost effective and efficient. A 2015 internal report from the Defense Business Board found $125 billion in administrative waste and offered a five-year path to save this money by streamlining bureaucratic processes. Even if this assessment was “vastly overstated,” as Pentagon leaders asserted, even half of those savings would be more than the increase that President Trump is proposing.
While defense spending is critical, throwing lots of additional money at the U.S. Department of Defense at the expense of other critical programs will not resolve inefficiencies in current spending. It also will not protect U.S. military forces or make the country safer.
Diplomacy and foreign assistance
According to officials, the proposed budget could slash spending on diplomacy and international development by 37 percent each. Once again, President Trump is acting impulsively without considering the impact of his acts on the national interest. Diplomacy and development get the biggest bang for American taxpayers’ buck: They are a tiny fraction of the budget, but they are crucial for national security, long-term economic prospects, and addressing threats that know no border. American diplomats also defend U.S. trade interests and offer crucial support for Americans living, working, and traveling abroad in times of crisis. Even Trump’s own secretary of defense, James Mattis, has said that cutting State Department funding makes new wars and conflicts more likely, not less: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
President Trump is dismissive of foreign assistance programs, which only account for about 1 percent of the budget. Neglected by Trump and his staff, however, are the facts that 7 of America’s 10 largest export markets are former aid recipients and that such assistance is grooming the fastest-growing markets for future U.S. trade in places such as Africa and South Asia. Foreign assistance programs combat infectious diseases, help save the lives of millions of women and children, combat hunger, and respond to devastating natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods. Both diplomacy and development are extremely cost-effective investments in a more prosperous and secure world; investing in them now means that fewer American lives will be lost in the future. Trump’s proposed cuts again demonstrate the danger of governing by temper tantrum and myth.
Climate change and environmental degradation
As mentioned above, President Trump’s proposed budget will reportedly include massive cuts to the EPA, with some sources saying that the EPA’s budget could be cut by 25 percent and that one in five of the agency’s workers would eventually be eliminated. Such cuts would deal another blow to U.S. national security, in addition to Americans’ health and safety. If the Trump administration funds a Department of Defense hardware-buying spree by cutting the EPA’s ability to reduce pollution and ignoring climate change, it will be neglecting what the Defense Department has called a “threat multiplier.” Climate change is not only threatening American coastlines; it has also played a role in triggering security crises around the world that can cost American lives. For example, climate change appears to have played a role in igniting the current crisis in Syria, which has led to an estimated 400,000 casualties and caused at least 4.9 million Syrians to flee their homes.
The Pentagon understands the security risks of climate change. As of 2015, the Department of Defense had integrated anticipated climate change impacts and associated risk management and preparedness strategies into all combatant commands. There is broad agreement within the defense community that climate change poses a direct national security risk to the United States. If the Trump administration takes funding away from U.S. efforts to combat global climate change—efforts that the State Department and the EPA were leading under the Obama administration—and uses that funding to buy more military hardware for the Department of Defense, it will increase the likelihood that American men and women will be sent into future conflict zones, putting an untold number of lives at risk.
The United States faces two choices on the climate security front: work collaboratively with other nations to reduce rising national security risks or ignore those risks today and face a more dangerous future. The proposed budget suggests that the Trump administration is making no effort to move the nation toward the former scenario and is instead doing everything it can to ensure the latter. This poses a grave concern for all Americans, particularly those whose sons or daughters could one day be sent to fight on the front lines of a conflict that could have been prevented with smart climate diplomacy.
A strong national security policy requires that all the tools of foreign policy be robust, not just the military. As the former defense secretary under President George W. Bush, Robert Gates, noted in 2007, the United States “must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military … We must also focus our energies on the other elements of national power that will be so crucial in the years to come.” To this end, Gates advocated for increased spending on “the civilian instruments of national security—diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction and development.”
By investing in diplomacy, foreign assistance, and the environment in addition to defense, the United States can drastically reduce current and future costs to its national security, the health of its citizens, the environment, and the national budget. If we do these things now, we will not have to resort in the future to asking American service members to put their lives on the line for conflicts that could have been avoided.