The foreign affairs budget: Small amount, Big bang

The Obama Administration released its FY2012 budget yesterday. And no one is happy.

Even before the budget was released, however, voices were raised that the administration needs to cut more deeply into the civilian foreign affairs budget. And each time I hear such calls I wonder if the people asking for the cuts really understand just what percentage of the whole budget is non-military foreign affairs.

In my journalism classes at George Mason I regularly asked my students that question. I usually gave them options of 1 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent and 15 percent.

The vast majority chose either 5 or 10 percent.

And I recall some surveys in past years that show the American people think that the American diplomatic programs — that is all overseas non-military programs — account for anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of the federal budget.

And the real number? Try less than 1 percent.

And what do the American people get for that amount?

The State Department and civilian foreign affairs budget provides funding for the diplomats and consular officials in embassies around the world. Anyone reading the Wikileaks cables will now know that the main job of a career diplomat is to dig out information from host countries that will help formulate policy back in the States.

The budget covers the costs of consular officials who issue visas for foreign visitors to the States. (And by the way, because of the weak dollar the U.S. is getting a lot of foreign visitors. And these trips are a big help in the U.S. balance of trade.) Consular officials are also the ones who step in to help Americans in trouble overseas.

Then there are the members of the embassy who work tirelessly to make sure U.S. companies get a fair shake when trying to export goods and services. And more exports mean more jobs.

And there is the humanitarian work that is also paid for with this budget.

Honestly, no matter what country makes the donation, humanitarian aid is always done in a way to benefit the donor. For example, it is in the best interests of the United States to work with developing countries to improve health programs and infrastructure. With better health and job opportunities the people in Honduras or Albania won’t have to leave their countries for a better life. The recipient countries could be stronger trading partners with the United States and stem the flow of illegal immigration.

So humanitarian aid is in our own self-interest and in the interest of a stable global economic and political system. Too bad that point doesn’t get through.

Ah, and for all the talk of how important it is to support democracy — and it is — the American people really don’t think much of that idea and maybe that is why the more the State Dept. talks about supporting and promoting democracy, the more support for that agency falters.

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press: Historically, Public Has Given Low Priority to Promoting Democracy Overseas

And yet, in that study, nearly 40 percent of the American people saw a real connection between the security of the United States and the promotion of democracy. (Compared to 21 percent who said the general idea of promoting democracy should be a foreign affairs priority.)

When the public was asked by the Pew Research Center in August 2006 to rank the importance of certain actions intended to help stem terrorism, nearly four-in-ten (38%) said it was very important “to encourage more democracy in Mideast countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”

Promotion of democracy and democratic values does not come at the barrel of a gun or from political speeches. Rather it comes from engagement and dialogue. The diplomats and private citizens who do this depend on the foreign affairs budget to get the job done.

Take a look at the Foreign Affairs Budget. Overall, the civilian foreign affairs budget provides the biggest bang for the buck than any other single portion of federal budget for economic, social and political security. This is the budget that provides ways to make the United States more secure without sending young men and women abroad to fight and die.

And maybe that should be worth more than just 1 percent.

3 Comments

Filed under Connections, International News Coverage, Story Ideas, Trade

3 responses to “The foreign affairs budget: Small amount, Big bang

  1. Pingback: Journalism and the World » Blog Archive » Understanding the foreign affairs budget

  2. Pingback: Reminder: Foreign affairs is not as expensive as you think | Journalism, Journalists and the World

  3. Pingback: Journalism and the World » Blog Archive » The cost of foreign affairs, it’s not as much as you think

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