Lots of talk going on right now about making savings in the budget. Getting the budget under control. Wasteful spending.
The one part of the budget that really doesn’t have a constituency to make its case is the area of foreign affairs. And that is the one that seems to be under attack.
And the problem is that when most people think about U.S. activities overseas they think of the military or disaster aid.
Ask anyone what percentage foreign affairs takes from the whole budget (and for this we will stay with “on-budget” items so that leaves out the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan). You will usually end up with numbers like 5-10 percent. (I did this with my students at George Mason and some even said 15 percent.)
Once you take out military and security assistance programs, which oddly enough do not come under the Pentagon budget, you have a grand total of 1.8 percent.
From that small amount, (about $5.5 billion out of a budget of $3 trillion) the U.S. government not only has to pay the salaries of all the State Department employees. That includes the 11,500 career foreign service officers serving in about 300 embassies and consulates world-wide. The budget also has to cover international exchanges, the Peace Corps, development programs, narcotics interdiction, global health programs and disaster relief.
The State Department is the smallest of the Cabinet agencies.
Now compare that to the Defense Department — again not counting the Iraq and Afghanistan costs — and you will see that the Pentagon gets 22 percent of the national budget.
But the Pentagon has a lot of people defending their budget. State has no one.
Is there waste and inefficiencies in the State Department operations? Abso-fracking-lutely! Only a fool would say otherwise. Could they do better? Yep! But the non-military aspect of U.S. foreign policy is already stretched to the limits. Valuable people are being let go and positions are not being filled because the State Department and the other foreign affairs sections of other agencies are easy targets for cuts.
If the Wikileaks cables tell us anything, they tell us that there are a lot of people working for the U.S. government trying to get the best information possible so that foreign policy decisions can be made with some degree of awareness of the situation and the consequences.
The non-military side of foreign affairs includes the State Department making sure that U.S. airlines have access to foreign airports and that U.S. companies can sell their goods to other countries without facing unfair tariffs or restrictions. It also includes efforts by the Commerce Department to help sell those U.S. goods — once the State Department clears the way. It includes training programs for law enforcement officers in countries that are just now learning about the importance of civil and civic rights.
And this is the budget people are now talking about cutting?
Without diplomacy and development aid all that is left is the military option to deal with overseas’ crises. Or maybe, as isolationists on the left and right argue, we can just pull into our own little cocoon, ignore the rest of the world and “take care” of out domestic problems first. (I think Dec. 7, 1941 and Sept. 11, 2001 showed that strategy doesn’t really work.)
Would be nice if we could see more stories about the local-global connections. Maybe if more people saw the need for non-violent engagement with the rest of the world, fewer men and women would have to be sent to hostile locations and put their lives in danger.