In a desperate attempt to meet campaign promises during his first 100 days in office, President Trump pushed a budget proposal that saves its biggest slashes for the country’s diplomacy and foreign aid arm. Dangerously, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson agrees with the cuts, despite the ramifications they would have on his department.
Trumps actions and Tillerson’s support would leave the United States with only one avenue by which to deal with international affairs: war. At a time when the U.S. is managing volatile situations on multiple foreign borders, the White House cannot afford to sever its other arm.
While the State Department budget makes up less than 1 percent of the federal budget, it faces a 28 percent slash. Tillerson justifies the drastic cut as a valid attempt to eliminate the department’s inefficiencies. His reasoning: The U.S. is expected to engage in fewer direct conflicts in the future.
This stance not only undermines Tillerson’s position as secretary of state, but also exposes his insufficient understanding of the department’s purpose.
First and foremost, the future of armed conflict in which the U.S. will have to engage cannot be predicted with accuracy. Given the escalating tensions in Asia and the war on terror in the Middle East, such predictions are neither fixed nor stable.
The State Department exists to mitigate emergency situations and humanitarian crises that result from conflicts in places like Syria, or in South Korea should there be war with North Korea. Deep cuts to the State Department will inevitably diminish the pool of talent and institutional knowledge necessary for understanding and responding to the changing landscape of warfare. As cyber-security attacks increase and new kinds of aggression are confronted, prevention and diplomacy will increase in importance.
Even Republican leaders such as John McCain, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Brad Wenstrup and Ed Royce have warned against the dangers of the proposed budget cut. In February, Politico reported that 120 retired generals and admirals sent a letter to Congress opposing the cuts. Secretary of Defense James Mattis also admonished Trump’s plans. “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition,” he warned.
Meanwhile, Trump supporters are banking on his campaign promise of more jobs and a more robust economy that puts America first. But if the Department of Defense is forced to “buy more ammo,” it is evidently preparing for more war, and Trump’s cuts to the State Department will shift more responsibilities to the military. Ultimately, this means more money will end up in the pockets of Trump’s wealthiest CEO friends as their businesses profit from increased war, and not in the pockets of his support base as promised.
The diplomacy conducted by the State Department is crucial for a White House facing threats from several fronts and for which the world looks to it for leadership: namely, nuclear threats from North Korea and ISIS activity in the Middle East. The department is also poised to respond to the uprising in Venezuela, where a military response by the U.S. would be a violation of state sovereignty but where the application of diplomacy and expressed U.S. values of supporting democracy would be the necessary and appropriate response. Additionally, the president has threatened to “tear up” the Iran nuclear agreement, stressing that Iran will not remain in compliance despite certification to the contrary.
Diplomacy, in essence, is prevention against the last resort of war. Yet so far, the president’s unsustainable response to foreign affairs has been reactive rather than proactive, as it lacks clear policy or a way forward. Diplomacy, on the other hand, is sustainable, as it develops and manages long-term relationships with foreign leaders and allies to whom the U.S. can turn when confronted with a new threat or possibility of civil unrest in key regions.
Cuts to the State Department also target development programs as well as refugee and migration assistance for countries that rely on the U.S. for humanitarian aid. For instance, Jordan — a key U.S. ally landlocked by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine — is one of the leading four countries to take in refugees fleeing from sustained long-term conflict in the region.
I recently repatriated from Jordan, where I worked on development projects in democracy and gender, and in those two years, the Za’atari refugee camp grew larger than Zarqa, the second largest city in the country. Jordanians are in desperate need of U.S. support for those refugees and of U.S. assistance to mitigate the crisis’ impact on the country’s struggling economy and its citizens.
Egypt is another example. The country’s economy is still recovering from the 2011 revolution, a delay in recovery that has been partly caused by bread being sold on the black market, thereby making it impossible for families to pay for basic food staples. Plus, Egypt is the largest and most populous country in the Middle East and North Africa and the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid. It would therefore behoove the U.S. to support this ally who shares a border with Libya and Gaza, conflict areas that serve as easy passages for terrorists to move about the region.
Winning the war on terror means protecting our few remaining allies. If we are to command strikes in Syria and send troops to battle in Mosul, it is incumbent upon us to provide humanitarian aid to the people affected by the conflicts in which we engage both during and after the conflict.
During this volatile time in the world order, the U.S. cannot afford to sever its diplomatic arm. Both Trump and Tillerson must carefully consider any cuts to soft power and present the U.S. with a foreign policy that ensures not only our country’s security, but also our commitment to global peace and stability. In the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson, “A president’s hardest task is not to do what is right, but to know what is right.”
This entry originally appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on May 5, 2017