Donald Trump won the presidency upon on a wave of anti-establishment populism and disrespect for international alliances and political institutions like NATO and the EU. Now that he has taken office, his inexperience in public service and foreign affairs demands a fully staffed, well-funded, experienced and empowered State Department to safeguard America’s standing in global affairs. Unfortunately, his budget, along with recent reports of Secretary Rex Tillerson’s marginalization within Trump World, indicate just the opposite. This is a dangerous gamble.
President Trump’s proposed 29 percent cut to the State Department will undermine important diplomatic efforts and make the American people less safe. With instability and turmoil on the rise around the world, how can the administration cut the Department whose mission is to “shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere” and at the same time promise to “Make America Safe Again”? These cuts only raise the stakes for rogue nations who may seek to test our inexperienced leader, and threaten to send a clear signal to our allies that they may want to rethink our longstanding relationship and seek other alliances.
Mr. Trump likes to cite the phrase “peace through strength” in defense of his proposed $54 million increase for defense spending. He fails to realize that our diplomats are among our strongest assets, settling political and military disputes around the world so that we don’t have to send our men and women into war. Our warfighters know that a strong defense takes more than military hardware. Even Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis is on record acknowledging the national security value of the State Department.
In a 2013 hearing, Secretary Mattis said to the Senate Armed Services Committee, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately. So I think it’s a cost benefit ratio. The more that 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 an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.” The State Department’s efforts keep American service members out of harm’s way and cost taxpayers pennies on the dollar compared to military engagement.
Polling shows that Americans believe we spend upwards of 20 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid. This is simply false. The international affairs budget accounts for only 1 percent of the entire federal budget. Trump’s efforts to slash this tiny category in the spirit of “budget control” are deceptive to the American people – a political ploy which risks global stability and undermines our international credibility. Moreover, most U.S. foreign assistance goes to U.S. companies and nonprofits through contracts and grants to implement projects in other countries, rather than directly to foreign institutions.
Finally, contrary to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and isolationist views, peace and stability abroad directly affects the American people. In the late 1990s, many analysts feared that Colombia – a key U.S. ally in Latin America threatened by a multi-sided, violent conflict – would become a failed state. Drug trafficking fueled violence in both Colombia and the United States. Between FY2000 and FY2016, Congress appropriated more than $10 billion to fund Plan Colombia, Colombia’s security strategy carried out in close cooperation with the U.S. Today, Colombia has achieved a significant turnaround. Between 1969 and 1999, almost 3,500 people died as a result of political violence in Northern Ireland. In 1995, President Clinton appointed George Mitchell as a Special Envoy for Northern Ireland who went on to successfully chair the talks that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement, one of the greatest diplomatic success stories of the 20th century.
The Good Friday Agreement effectively ended the violence in Northern Ireland and brought warring communities together. It was also U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall who was the architect of the post-World War II Marshall Plan, which channeled over $12 billion of U.S. taxpayer dollars to finance the economic recovery of Europe, a key partner to the United States ever since. Since the end of World War II, the West has benefited from the peace and prosperity of the post-World War II order. As these examples make clear, the State Department is key to preventing and defusing global conflict and strengthening our allies, to the benefit of U.S. safety and international standing.
So, if President Trump wants to cut the State Department budget, how is he going to defeat extremism after his promised military defeat of ISIS? How is President Trump going to aid Syrian refugees amid his refusal to allow them on to our soil and resistance to funding such efforts by other countries or institutions like NATO? The diseases we don’t fight abroad will eventually reach our shores. The conflicts we fail to address will grow into the wars we need to fight. The people we fail to befriend may become our latest emboldened enemies. Congress must protect the State Department from President Trump’s proposed cuts and short-sightedness.
Congressman Brendan F. Boyle, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is a Democrat who represents Pennsylvania’s 13th District. It includes sections of Philadelphia and Montgomery county.