Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was fond of saying that the Department of Defense has “more people in military bands than (the State Department has) in the Foreign Service.” His observation reveals a discomfiting inequality in national priorities which has been thrown into sharp relief by battles over the upcoming budget. Far from improving the situation, proposals from both chambers of Congress include substantial cuts to foreign aid.
These cuts, totaling $12 billion in the House version, come on the heels of $8 billion in cuts to the State Department budget in April as part of a deal to keep the government financed. If adopted, the cuts would severely undermine national security while making only minor changes to the deficit.
If any should doubt the importance of foreign aid to national security, they need look no farther than Afghanistan for their proof. Much has been said of the covert military assistance given to the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, later forming the core of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Less has been said about what was not given: foreign aid and development assistance to rebuild the war-torn country. The fighters, newly armed and trained but unaware of US involvement, returned home to lives and villages largely without prospects. Through aid projects the United States could have brought stability to Afghanistan. Instead we turned our backs, and 20 years later we are still reaping the deadly consequences.
The rise of al-Qaeda and the Taliban is just one example of the consequences of a weak commitment to foreign aid, but there are dozens more. The recent Arab Spring movements across the Middle East and North Africa have revealed stark deficiencies in our ability to actively respond to changing events with appropriate aid. Many have called for a Marshall Plan for these new democracies to ensure their stability and friendly relations with the United States. Unfortunately, budget considerations have stalled any such plan, a fact which is bound to have consequences for U.S. standing and influence in the region.
Furthermore, foreign aid works. Just last week, the World Health Organization announced that the number oftuberculosis cases is decreasing after decades of increases, due in large part to U.S. funding of treatment efforts around the world. While this may seem unrelated to national security, it is all part of a big-picture effort to promote prosperity and stability abroad. Such efforts preempt security concerns by helping foreign governments contain problems before they spread.
In addition to the detrimental impact that these cuts will have on national security, they will have almost no impact on the overall budget situation. International security, development, and humanitarian assistance totaled a whopping 0.8 percent of the budget in FY2010. Total spending for international affairs, including the State Department’s operating budget, brings that number up to 1.3 percent. In comparison, total military spending was 20 percent of the budget. Congress’s proposed cuts will have a significant impact on international development and the State Department’s ability to defend our security abroad, all while reducing spending by less than 0.2 percent.
Congress’s proposed cuts to the foreign aid budget are a misguided attempt to find a painless way to solve the budget deficit problem. Far from being innocuous, these cuts jeopardize our national security and make it tougher for the United States to employ non-military solutions to crises around the world.
In the coming years, the United States will be facing ever more complicated security problems to which military solutions will be inappropriate. If we continue to emphasize the military over diplomacy, our standing in the world will be seriously diminished and much less secure. As former Sec. Gates has said, “What is clear to me is that there is a need for a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security.” At a time of such international upheaval, we can afford no less.