A Bad Budget for America’s Place in the World

President Trump walks from Marine One upon arrival on the South Lawn of the White House, August 27, 2017.

As President Donald Trump dreams of a military parade in the streets of the nation’s capital and dishes out enormous tax breaks to billionaires, he continues to hobble American diplomacy and international development to an unprecedented degree.

The just-released budget, while thin on details, calls for devastating cuts of more than 30 percent to diplomacy and development programs from the levels enacted in 2017. These cuts, if adopted, would leave America less equipped to tackle conflict, pandemic disease, and extremism before they reach the nation’s shores; ill-prepared to champion American exports overseas; and more likely to end up in military conflict. It will also cause untold suffering for millions of people—particularly the most vulnerable women and children across the developing world.

Neglects critical agency funding

The Trump-Tillerson record on international affairs is already appalling, and the proposed budget would only make things worse. Seven of the top nine jobs at the U.S. Department of State are empty more than a year into Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tenure. Of the six senior regional chiefs within the State Department, only one has been confirmed, and there have not even been nominations for four of these positions, including the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. The State Department saw more than 16 percent of civilian employees with 25 or more years of service depart between December 2016 and September 2017, and the number of foreign affairs series employees with at least 25-year tenures shrunk more than 13 percent during that same time frame.

These proposed cuts come at a time when the 2018 budget deal has already left lawmakers scrambling to find adequate resources to cover a yawning shortfall in funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The Trump budget request and the congressional budget deal lavish spending on defense programs while badly shortchanging diplomacy and development. Defense spending under the budget deal leaps more than 15 percent in 2018 alone, the sharpest rise in more than 15 years, while Foreign Policy notes the current version of the budget deal “would impose the biggest reduction in resources for the diplomatic corps and development programs since the 1990s.”

Ignores persistent national security concerns

There are responsible ways to strengthen America’s military power, but it is the height of recklessness to cut investments in the very diplomacy that makes it less likely America would need to use its military and more likely to succeed when it does.

The challenges America faces today are growing, and diplomacy is essential to dealing with all of them. The situation on the Korean Peninsula remains dangerously close to war, but there is currently no U.S. ambassador in South Korea. The 17-year war in Afghanistan remains no closer to a successful conclusion and it will not be resolved militarily, and indeed President Trump has expanded the number of U.S. forces on the ground in both Afghanistan and Syria with no clear end in sight—and little indication of the civilian and diplomatic efforts required to make good on the military’s sacrifice in battle.

And as challenges fester, the secretary of state is decimating his own department, and with it, America’s ability to tackle such problems. Secretary Tillerson has slowed to a trickle the admission of new foreign service officers to build the future of American diplomacy; much of the hiring freeze for the State Department remains in effect; and Tillerson’s actions have been driving out senior career diplomats at an alarming rate. This amounts to national security malpractice, as well as a unilateral disarming of a core tool of American power.

One need not be an expert in international affairs to see the obvious damage that Trump and Tillerson are inflicting on American interests around the globe. Trump has denigrated the United States’ key NATO allies while never speaking a word of ill about Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump has dismissed Africa, one of the most important emerging markets in the world for future U.S. exports, as full of “shithole countries.” The president’s rhetoric and policies toward Mexicans and Latin Americans—including Secretary Tillerson’s praise of the Monroe Doctrine—have needlessly soured much of America’s relations with this vital region.

The U.S. president and secretary of state need the professional counsel, insight, and hard work of the nation’s career diplomats and development experts now more than ever in history. And yet this budget continues the disturbing trend of Trump believing that the U.S. military is the only way to engage with a world full of complex threats and opportunities that cannot be solved by force alone. A strong military is vital—but so is smart diplomacy, sound investments in development, and a healthy dose of common sense.

The effects of Trump’s proposed budget cuts

It is often hard to place these budget numbers in context, but the impact of these cuts would be very real. These cuts would mean less money to help promote American companies overseas—meaning fewer American jobs and less economic growth. Cuts would result in fewer diplomats to help get Americans abroad out of trouble when there is a natural disaster, or to tackle pandemic disease outbreaks before they reach America.

The proposed budget spends almost 45 percent of the entire diplomatic and consular affairs budget on security, leaving very little money for the actual conduct of diplomacy itself. The number of students and rising leaders from across the world who come to America for a chance to learn and bring back home an experience of American democracy and values would decline. The budget also demonstrates Secretary Tillerson’s continued obsession with spending more than $100 million to upgrade State Department computers—even as he leaves management of the department in disarray.

The list goes on.

Policymakers are already seeing the impact of cuts in development funding coupled with deeply regressive policies. The reinstitution of the so-called Global Gag Rule, which limits access to family planning for poor women in developing countries, has been catastrophic. As Time Magazine notes, “In just one year, health care workers say the policy has had disastrous effect; as expected, clinics are shutting down, unsafe abortions are predicted to rise sharply and families are losing critical services across the globe.” U.S. funding cuts and policy restrictions will literally lead to millions more unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions around the globe.

And it is not just those living abroad who will feel the impact of cuts in development assistance.

The 160-page budget document references “climate change” only once, and that is only when it proposes eliminating a program. This comes at a time when the United States has just endured the most costly natural disaster season in its history, and it is clearer than ever that international cooperation is essential to address the threat of climate change and its impact on everything from rising sea levels to extreme weather events.

These budgets would leave Americans more vulnerable to sudden outbreaks of infectious disease and other major health threats—for instance, plans to cut the Centers for Disease Control’s work on epidemic prevention overseas by 80 percent and could leave a future outbreak of Ebola, such as the one in 2014, left free to spread to America. The administration’s deep cuts in science and technology, including funding for dealing with climate change, mean that Americans will be more vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather. These cuts would also cede America’s comparative advantage in some of the most important emerging markets in Africa and Asia to China, costing the United States jobs and growth.

The Trump budget calls for eliminating funding for the McGovern-Dole food for education program that helps educate some of the poorest young girls in the developing world. It also calls for zeroing out funding for The Asia Foundation and the East-West Center, both of which have long enjoyed bipartisan support.

Conclusion

Military leaders, both current and former, have spoken out in support of diplomacy and development funding. They know firsthand that bombs aren’t enough. Diplomacy and development are mission-critical elements of a balanced approach to advancing America’s interests and security in the world.  Business leaders, civil society, and an incredibly wide spectrum of Americans have joined these calls. The U.S. Congress rejected Trump’s deep, draconian cuts in the foreign affairs budget last year—and did so in a highly bipartisan fashion. It would serve America well if they did so again.

John Norris is a senior fellow and the executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress.