Saturday, March 18, 2017

Unilateral Disarmament: Why Trump's "Skinny Budget" Would Make the United States Less Powerful

Despite the $54 billion increase in defense spending, the Trump budget as disclosed last week will make the United States less powerful in world affairs. As a practical matter, this would mean that we are less likely to get our way in the world, and our adversaries, including China, Russia, and Iran, will become relatively more powerful.

But how can this be?  With more F-35's , a larger Army, and more ships, won't we be more powerful?  Not at all.  Military Power is only one element of national power, and the Trump budget is effectively unilateral disarmament when it comes to the other key elements of national power.

First, a quick look at what the budget proposes. It cuts the Department of State budget by a huge 29%.  This means that the entire State Department budget ($39 billion after the cuts) would be smaller than simply the increase in the Defense budget.  While not detailed, we know that these cuts translate to much smaller aid programs, fewer diplomats, and a dramatic cut in our participation in international organizations. The budget will also cut funding for multilateral development banks (like the World Bank) by $650 million over three years.

So who cares?  We have more starving children in Africa, less diplomats living the good life overseas, and fewer bureaucrats at the U.N. Wants the big deal?

Any one who has worked in the Department of Defense knows that while military power is very important, it is of limited usefulness in many circumstances.  And in other circumstances, diplomacy and foreign aid can be more effective and cheaper (both in terms of dollars and lives) than military power.

Here are just a few examples.  We are battling  al Qaeda spin offs throughout many parts of Africa.  We have found that even modest amounts of security assistance can be an effective alternative to American boots on the ground.  Our assistance to Colombia starting in the 1990's as part of Plan Colombia greatly stabilized the security situation in that country and led to the final peace deal with the FARC.  And our humanitarian assistance goes a long way to shaping attitudes in receiving countries about the United States.

Finally, the most influential tools of influence on our most important allies (who also happen to be the world's leading economies) is the hard work of diplomacy and our participation in international organizations.  We aren't going to prevail in our important ( but friendly) dispute with Canada over border issues in the Artic by the threat of military force, but instead by careful diplomacy.

Many European states are deeply invested in international organizations such as the World Bank and the United States.  As frustrating as it may be at times to deal with the U.N., our active participation is important as a tool of influence over the policies of many countries.

As any reader of this blog will know, I am a bit of a hawk when it comes to a strong military.  But, I am just as much of a "hawk" when it comes to other forms of American power.

Don't take my word for it.  As I noted in a previous post, Defense Secretary Mattis made the same point when he was the Commander of Central Command. Mattis said “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.” And Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said “Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers."

So the question is simple:  why does the Trump Administration want to unilaterally disarm these important tools of American power?

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