Guest Opinion: A cut in diplomacy hurts America

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 8
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The administration of President Donald Trump has announced a plan to cut nearly $20 billion from the $50 billion budget of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Reducing the budget for diplomacy by 37 percent does not seem to reflect Trump’s stated intention to increase America’s stature in the world, in effect, “making America great again.”

If carried out, the reduction in State and USAID wherewithal would cripple catastrophically those two agencies in carrying out their activities on behalf of America abroad. Their budgets are, in any case, a fraction of the overall U.S. government budget of around $3 trillion. The Department of Defense is reportedly scheduled to receive well over $600 billion, including a $54 billion increase it had not even asked for.

In particular, State plays a key role in advancing two issues of great interest to Trump — control of immigration and expanding markets for U.S. exports. Senior American military officers have made clear over the years that the defense and diplomacy functions of the U.S. government overseas are overlapping and fully complementary. Every nickel spent on diplomacy is one that needn’t be spent on weaponry.

Apart from the damage to the functions of State and USAID of such drastic cuts — disproportionately more than any other department of government may be asked to bear — there is the current relative silence in expressions of policy from new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Part of that phenomenon is no doubt due to the fact that he has not yet been able to put in place his own team at State. Trump nixed a choice for deputy secretary of state, Elliott Abrams, on the grounds of Abrams’ expressed opposition to him as a candidate during the campaign. That is fair enough, but the deputy slot is not one Tillerson can comfortably leave vacant, as are other key positions at the undersecretary and assistant secretary levels.

The world, for America, is out there and full of dangerous, simmering issues. North Korea’s weapons mischief is one. European uncertainties about American defense and policy intentions are another. The Middle East and South Asia contain live wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, all involving U.S. forces. It is likely that none of them can be brought to an end useful to the United States except through negotiations. And, for that, the country needs its Department of State.

Tillerson, as a former CEO of Exxon Mobil, is no bureaucratic shrinking violet. Unless he wants to try to carry out his job with no money, he needs to get very busy quickly building support within the administration and in Congress for a healthy operating budget. He also needs to occupy himself with putting a team into place to support him in his mission. We continue to believe he can do both.