Why Trump’s Neo-Isolationist Budget Makes Us Less Safe

Stewart M. Patrick

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

President Donald Trump’s unapologetic “hard power” budget reveals an alarming ignorance about the threats to U.S. national security and the instruments needed to advance U.S. global interests.

The document would slash already modest outlays for U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance, while increasing the current gargantuan Pentagon budget by 10 percent.

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The result is a fundamentally unbalanced national security budget that guts the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development on the erroneous assumption that the U.S. military alone can somehow meet America’s foreign policy needs. If approved as drafted, Trump’s budget would signal the definitive surrender of any pretense to U.S. global leadership.

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Fortunately, this is not likely to happen. Trump’s budget is but the opening salvo in a budget battle that will last until the new fiscal year begins in October. And because Congress controls the purse strings, this struggle will largely unfold not in the White House but at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Already, several Republicans have expressed alarm at Trump’s draconian cuts to nonmilitary components of U.S. power and influence. One is Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who sits on the budget, appropriations, and defense committees. Two weeks ago, anticipating Trump’s plan to chop State Department funding, he responded, “It’s not going to happen. It would be a disaster. If you take soft power off the table, then you’re never going to win the war.”

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President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Trump International Golf Club in Bedminster Township, New Jersey, on November 19, 2016. Stewart Patrick writes that Mattis, despite his “Mad Dog” moniker, has said that if State Department funding gets cut, “I need to buy more ammunition.” Drew Angerer/getty

Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has gamely defended a 29 percent reduction in his budget, seasoned State Department officials are alarmed by the implications. The same is likely to be true of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who (despite his “Mad Dog” moniker) has said that if State Department funding gets cut, “I need to buy more ammunition.”

While the Pentagon’s service chiefs will surely welcome more hardware, Iraq and Afghanistan have also taught them the dangers of underfunding U.S. civilian capabilities—in war zones and beyond.

Beyond the top-line figure of a 29 percent cut in international affairs spending, Trump’s budget is vague on many details. But the numbers it does provide are worrisome.

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The document would eliminate all U.S. funding for U.N. climate change efforts, with devastating consequences for the planet and for the international reputation and diplomatic influence of the United States.

It would also zero out the State Department’s Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance account, a flexible fund that has never been more urgent as the world faces the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945.

Trump’s budget would also slash the Treasury Department’s international programs by 35 percent by eliminating the Overseas Private Investment Corp.(which assists U.S. companies investing in foreign markets) and slashing U.S. support for multilateral development banks, including the World Bank, by $650 million over three years.

The latter would undermine traditional U.S. leadership within the World Bank at the precise time that China is flexing its muscles in parallel institutions, such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Finally, Trump’s budget proposes major decreases in U.S. contributions to the U.N., including an 11 percent reduction in support for peacekeeping operations, as well as major—if so far unspecified—cuts for U.N. agencies that “do not substantially advance U.S. foreign policy interests, are duplicative, or are not well-managed.”

Despite assurances by Nikki Haley, Trump’s U.N. envoy, that the administration would not pursue a “slash and burn approach,” Colum Lynch of Foreign Policy reports that State Department staffers have been “instructed to seek cuts in excess of 50 percent in U.S. funding for UN programs.”

Using U.S. taxpayer dollars wisely is essential. But Trump’s proposed budget flies in the face of a broad consensus among national security professionals that the United States must invest in the so-called “soft power” components of its international influence.

The United States has plenty of hard-edged power, accounting for roughly 37 percent of all global defense spending in 2015, more than the next nine nations combined.

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Where it has too often failed to invest is in diplomatic capabilities that ensure that the United States has the best information about political developments in nations around the world—and trained diplomats who know which levers to push in advancing U.S. interests and equities with foreign governments.

The United States also needs foreign aid tools to bolster relationships with strategic partners, fight poverty, combat disease and save lives, including in insecure areas where U.S. enemies might otherwise take root.

And it has a fundamental interest in doing its share to bolster international agencies—from the office of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees to the International Atomic Energy Agency—that help advance peace, justice and prosperity around the world.

As a founding member of and major donor to these organizations, the United States steers their work while leveraging the financial contributions of others. This isn’t charity. It’s simply common sense.

The director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, boasts that this is an “America First” budget. That is true only if one accepts the false premise that the United States can somehow wall itself off from the world.

It assumes the nation will pay no price for hollowing out its diplomacy, slashing foreign aid and turning its back on international institutions that it helped to create and that advance U.S. national interests every day—whether by keeping civil aviation safe, combating emerging pandemics or mitigating the looming catastrophe that is climate change.

In presenting this budget, Trump has revealed himself once more to be a cynic, as defined by Oscar Wilde: That is, he is a man who knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing.

Foreign aid is a perfect example. According to the administration, these cuts are designed to “free up funding for critical priorities here at home and put America first.” The document continues, “It is time to prioritize the security and well-being of Americans, and to ask the rest of the world to step up and pay their fair share.”

Let’s leave aside for the moment that U.S. expenditures for international affairs (including foreign aid) make up just 1 percent of the federal budget. Let’s ignore for now that the United States spends 15 times as much as this on the military, which consumes more than half of the U.S. discretionary budget. And let’s overlook that the United States ranks only 20th out of 28 wealthy democracies in the proportion of gross domestic product it devotes to development assistance.

The more fundamental problem is that Trump treats such international affairs outlays as if they were mere handouts, whereas in fact they are deeply in U.S. interests and consistent with (at least until recently) American values. Moreover, Trump could easily preserve them by holding military spending increases to inflation, rather than giving the defense industrial complex every single toy it desires.

The bottom line is that it is impossible to make America first by treating the world last, as a mere afterthought of no consequence to the nation’s ultimate fate. That was a mistake the United States made in the 1930s, and it paid a terrible place.

Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow and director at the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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