Gutting the State Department is National Security Malpractice

If you think about national security in health terms, the State Department serves as a primary care physician, a vaccine researcher, a psychiatrist, a rehabilitation expert, and more.  The Department of Defense is the emergency room.  We don’t want people to use the emergency room as a primary care facility.  Why would we want the military to serve as our first option to deal with global security challenges?  This country deserves comprehensive national security coverage and President Trump’s budget proposal is national security malpractice.  

For most Americans, the scope and purpose of the State Department’s work is a little unclear. Public surveys constantly show Americans estimating that we spend up to a third of the annual federal budget on foreign aid and assistance. The real number is about 1%. This gross misconception did not appear on its own.  For years, conservative leaders and pundits have willfully misled the American public about how much we spend on State Department activities. Members of Congress, always eager to find a scapegoat, have let the misconceptions grow.  Listening to some of them, you would think it was the State Department Bureau of International Organization Affairs that racked up a nearly $2 trillion tab, rather than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   

The State Department is now forced to engage in a public display of masochism, advocating for the gutting of its own budget, while its leader used his first-ever press appearance to say the State Department budget is unsustainable. Secretary Tillerson has a month and a half’s worth of experience as a diplomat.  He has been shut out of Trump Administration meetings with foreign leaders.  He lacks senior staff and has had a minimum amount of interaction with his own employees.  Now he says he didn’t want to be the Secretary in the first place.  He has yet to build the credibility that would allow him to contend what will or will not make the State Department stronger.  In fact, many now contend that he is enabling the White House’s assault on our frontline civilians.

Here is the simple truth: If our strongest tool for dealing with international crises is a military one, we are going to get into a lot more wars.  If that doesn’t sound appealing, then funding the State Department is the best investment you can make.  

For about 1% of the total federal budget, the public servants at State help secure loose nuclear material. They train foreign police who fight terrorism. They work with local leaders to counter violent extremism. They combat human trafficking, gangs, counterfeiting, narcotic smuggling, and corruption.  They lead responses to disease outbreaks, like Ebola.  The work they do makes the work of the U.S. military easier. They treat problems at the source, before those problems get to our doorstep.  

Secretary of Defense Mattis knows that.  That’s why he told a Congressional Committee, “if you don’t fund the State Department fully then I need to buy more ammunition.”  

It really doesn’t get clearer than that.  Fund State or fund more bullets.    

Nobody disagrees with the fact that the government can and should work more effectively and efficiently, but cuts need to be made as part of a sound strategy.  You could find enough money to fund scores of State Department programs by rifling through the couch cushions at the Pentagon. Cost savings should be identified in every part of the government.

Beyond that, we are missing key national security leaders at State and around the government.  Many White House leaders have little previous experience with national security issues.  With time and proper coordination, it would become clear that cutting away at a 1% sliver of a multi-trillion dollar budget won’t make us safer and that any money saved would likely be spent cleaning up messes caused by these cuts.  

Doctors tell us that that prevention is the key to good health. The same concept applies to national security and the State Department is a huge part of our prevention plan.  For a tiny fraction of what we need to spend to maintain a strong military, we can also maintain strong diplomatic and development efforts.  In fact, it actually makes sense in fiscal and security terms to maintain or increase funding on preventative diplomatic care.  Stopping crises before they start you will save money and lives over the long term.

The White House should take a step back and listen to Republican leaders like Senator Graham, who explained that investments abroad are an insurance policy for the health and security of this country.

Image: US Dept. of Defense. 

About the Author(s)

Alexandra Bell

Senior Policy Director at the Council for a Livable World and Former Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security