Trump’s Budget Proposal: A Massive International Affairs Mistake

Early in March, President Trump released his budget outline for 2018. Among other things, the proposal cut spending on the State Department and USAID by around 35% while it asked Congress for a $54 billion increase in spending for the military, which amounts to about a 10% increase. Trump’s proposal is a political document, and Congress is unlikely to enact it, at least in its entirety. However, this proposal gives insight into the White House’s apparent preference for using hard power when addressing issues abroad, and it is incredibly disheartening that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has thrown his support behind the proposal.

Diplomacy and warfare are not different ways of solving a problem, and are most successful when they are used in conjunction. As Former Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey said, “[d]iplomacy is not an alternative to military force; it is the use of all elements of U.S. force in a coordinated, cumulative way to achieve our results in other countries.” The use of soft power is critical to the continued success of U.S. hard power. By cutting an already tight State Department and USAID budget by more than a third, Trump and his team are demonstrating that they do not see diplomacy and warfare as two components of the same strategy, and by doing so are making a critical mistake.

Although the budget proposal is in no way written in stone, there is potential for real consequences because of the line of thinking that it demonstrates. In particular, USAID and the State Department can play a critical role in the rebuilding of institutions of war-torn countries post-conflict. In recent years, the US has embarked on many projects abroad that include some components of rebuilding a society post-conflict, often a conflict that the U.S. was directly involved in. When the State Department and USAID are not properly funded, the responsibility of conducting these political and diplomatic operations falls upon people who do not have the same training and experience.

One example of this phenomenon was the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan began in 2001, but in 2009 another military surge began. The military surge was supposed to be coupled with a “civilian surge” that would have included experts who could help rebuild the country. Unfortunately, the “civilian surge” never materialized because the agencies didn’t have the necessary funding. This led to troops trying to fill the gaps, but they lacked the training in local languages and culture that a Foreign Service Officer would possess, which meant they were not able to accomplish as much as FSOs would have been able to.

The failure of this “civilian surge,” among many other things, is why the U.S. is still engaged in a war in Afghanistan, nearly 16 years after first invading. If this war could be won by training Afghan soldiers and killing Taliban leaders, hard power actions, it would have been won. But, as the continuation of the conflict demonstrates, military action is not the only thing that is necessary to achieve the U.S.’s goals abroad, there needs to be knowledgeable diplomatic effort as well.

Although the budget proposal does not give the specifics of which programs would be impacted by the budget cuts, a 2016 report by the Heritage Foundation, entitled “How to Make the State Department More Effective at Implementing U.S. Foreign Policy,” gives insight into what programs might potentially face cuts. Although the counterterrorism bureau likely will not face large cuts, divisions that deal with arms control, military affairs, and cultural programs likely will. These cuts are in addition to many other likely cuts to a variety of key functions of the U.S. State Department, but that don’t particularly fall within the scope of U.S. military actions. These divisions are critical to the U.S.’s military efforts, particularly if the U.S. wants to do any form of state or nation building.

Although Trump has been skeptical of “nation building” in the past, there are crises around the world that will need to be dealt with that will demand the use of the State Department and USAID in this fashion. One such situation is ISIL. One of the few campaign promises Trump has kept is a firm on is his commitment to defeating ISIL, and as one Foreign Policy article put it, he is succeeding. Of course, while the elimination of ISIL is a worthy goal in pursuit of a safer world, it is not a matter of simply defeating them. Instead, one must ask whether anyone will simply take ISIL’s place in the event that they are eliminated, just as ISIL’s success could partially be explained by the power vacuum caused by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This same power vacuum will exist after the demise of ISIL, and it is highly likely that it could potentially lead to a similar group emerging unless actions are taken to help rebuild the countries who have been most impacted by ISIL allowing them to defend themselves. This is a role that is better suited to the State Department and USAID than it is to the US military, but if they do not have the requisite funding, they will not be able to do it.

This same lack of understanding will cause problems for Trump on another foreign policy issue he will need to address while President, the ongoing civil war on Syria. It is harder to discern what Trump’s goals are regarding this conflict as he will need to reconcile two positions that are the antithesis of each other, his desire to work with Russia, and his desire to contain Iran. While on the campaign trail Trump often stated that he was not interested in getting the US involved militarily in the Middle East, however, in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, the White House ordered the use of Tomahawk cruise missiles to bomb Syrian airbases, saying that “something should happen” in regard to Assad. It is impossible to say what the White House’s long term goal is in Syria, however, in recent days a consensus has seemed to appear within the Trump administration that a solution will not come to Syria while Assad is in power, with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. saying, “We don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there.” Whether or not the U.S. pursues a foreign policy that involves deposing Assad or not, in a crisis where 11 million people have had to flee their homes and hundreds of thousands have been killed, large amounts of state building will need to occur post-conflict. But will a State Department and USAID who have had their funding severely cut be up to the task? I think it’s highly unlikely.

To be fair, Trump is hardly the first president to make this mistake. In fact, this is an endemic problem that has existed for many years, which is why the War in Afghanistan is a good example of the perils of underfunding the international affairs apparatus. Each year, Congress passes the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets funding parameters for the Pentagon. In contrast, a State Department authorization bill has not been passed in years. A widespread mistake is being made, over and over again, which is why for years, Secretaries of Defense have called on Congress to give the State Department and USAID the necessary funding they need to do their jobs. And it is why 120 retired US generals called upon Congress to fully fund the international affairs budget. Time and again, Congress has failed to deliver.

This question of funding is not a zero-sum game. An increase in spending on the State Department does not need to come at the expense of spending on the military, or vice versa. Although they are far, far better funded, the military has still experienced problems as a result of sequestration, especially in the civilian components of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. But when the military that receives the most funding on earth is getting an increase in spending, while an already underfunded State Department and USAID is getting a massive pay decrease, something needs to change.

In 2013, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, then Marine General James Mattis said “If you don’t fund the State Department fully then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately…the more 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 apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.” Mattis is now the Secretary of Defense, but it appears his advice has been ignored. Of course, the U.S. has the choice not to engage in wars that will lead to the rebuilding of countries after the conflict, but it seems highly unlikely that that is something that will be pursued. Even if Trump has said he wants to avoid getting entangled in messy conflicts abroad, which seems unlikely in light of his quick reversal on Syria, things will happen during his presidency that will force his hand. Simply put, cutting the international affairs budget will not help solve any problems, except to assuage domestic voters who believe there is too much discretionary spending in the U.S., it will make them worse. A well-funded State Department and USAID is critical to the success of the US military. To underfund them is to make the military conflicts that much longer and more challenging. Hopefully the Trump administration realizes that, or they are doomed repeat the same mistakes as previous administrations.

Benjamin Shaver

About Benjamin Shaver

Benjamin Shaver is a 3rd year student in SIS and CAS studying International Relations and Statistics. He is a Foreign Policy and Global Security staff writer.