The National Security Threat of Trump’s Defense Budget

As a former military officer and national security appointee under President Barack Obama, I know firsthand the value of U.S. defense spending for securing the United States and the global community. But by proposing massive increases in Pentagon funding at the expense of U.S. diplomats and foreign aid across the globe, President Donald Trump’s proposed defense budget for Fiscal Year 2019 sets a dangerous precedent that undermines U.S. national security.

Modern U.S. foreign and national security policy previously strived to be grounded in “Smart Power” — the balance of hard projection, such as military force, and soft power efforts like diplomacy and foreign aid – even if the balance was not often achieved. Trump’s budget, however, dangerously continues a trend — increasing hard power at the cost of significantly decreased soft power.

Trump’s proposed budget would increase defense spending by approximately 13 percent from FY17 to FY19. This would bring U.S. defense spending to $686.1 billion for Fiscal Year 2019 with an unprecedent base budget of $647 billion, while the State Department would see a deep 29 percent decrease. The $8.8 billion shortfall for State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budgets would represent one of the largest for diplomacy and development in three decades.

If these proposals become law, the consequences would be profound. When he was a four-star general and the commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, James Mattis, now the defense secretary, provided the clearest, most compelling argument for why funding diplomacy is crucial during congressional testimony in 2013. When asked if the international development budget was helpful to providing national defense for the U.S., Mattis replied:

“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.”

He’s not alone. A non-partisan group of more than 150 retired three-and four-star flag officers released a letter in February, through the U.S. Global Leadership Conference, calling on congressional leaders to see that State and USAID, among other development agencies, receive adequate funding. The letter notes that without sufficient funding for diplomacy and international aid, the world will see a deficit in American power projection globally that has been critical to the safety of the United States.

During my time as a soldier in Iraq, I watched how “Smart Power” worked as we attempted to build both physical and metaphorical bridges with local village populations. We met with sheikhs and town elders, asking them about their needs in the community, and what we could do to not only make them feel safer, but to also make their lives more stable. We weren’t trained diplomats but exigent circumstances created by conflict forced us into the position. To be certain, we didn’t always get it right, and 17 years of war demonstrates that fact. But those active efforts to win the hearts and minds of the communities — a combination of both short-term programmatic successes and long-term investment — have been proven to have the most positive impacts. With the right diplomatic support, we perhaps could have found lasting successes.

At a time when the world seemingly stands on the precipice of a nuclear standoff, Trump’s budget would also increase the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget for the development and improvement of the U.S. nuclear arsenal by $1.2 billion, while continuing the trend of failing to increase funding for non-proliferation programs that attempt to keep us safe from nuclear terrorism. The combined request for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation received a reduction of $50 million compared to the fiscal year 2018 estimate. At the same time, the Congressional Budget Office, CBO, estimates the 30-year cost of Trump’s nuclear spending plan, which includes sustaining and refurbishing the entire nuclear weapon enterprise, at $1.7 trillion, with inflation included.

To be fair, this type of unaffordability is a continuing and unsustainable issue. In 2015, the Defense Department was unsure how it would secure funding for the nuclear program. Some estimated the programmatic cost would eat up 10 percent of the Pentagon’s overall budget for an undisclosed “period of time.” Another estimate from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimated costs at $625 billion by 2025 with assumed spending caps from the Budget Control Act. And another CBO report at the time had the estimate closer to 5 to 6 percent of the annual budget, still placing the cost between $31 and $38 billion a year. The investment in U.S. nuclear weapons programs has been a problematic trend, but that doesn’t mean the cost and budgetary confusion associated with it should be allowed to continue.

Furthermore, investment in nuclear energy research and development is reduced by nearly $260 million. It is a potentially dangerous time for the U.S. to be seen as reinvesting in a renewed nuclear arms race. The nuclear weapons playing field is in a state of flux. U.S. talks with North Korea over its nuclear program remain uncertain, but suffered a setback this week when Trump announced he was canceling the planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 12 in Singapore. In the meantime,  Trump decided to end U.S. involvement in the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Additionally, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince stated that if Iran decides to reengage in the development of its nuclear program, the Kingdom may follow suit. This is also a time when the U.S. not only lacks dedicated ambassadors in these regions, but also intends to conduct historic budget cuts to the country’s diplomatic corps. Earlier this year, the top U.S. diplomat for North Korean policy, Ambassador Joseph Yun, resigned.

Second, the cut to nuclear energy is in line with other reductions in the research and development of clean, renewable energy across the entirety of government, while renewing investment in fossil fuels and nuclear weapons. Clean energy and energy independence have long been viewed as national security issues; intelligence agencies have stated since the 1970s that man-made pollution can affect tactical operations. In the 1990s, the Senate Armed Services Committee identified environmental destruction as a national security threat. Moreover, fossil fuel is very costly, and its continued consumption in lieu of alternatives will prove inefficient while restricting funds that could be utilized in other important programs or operations.

And, as the largest land-owning entity in the United States, and single largest consumer of energy in the world, the Department of Defense has a vested interest in identifying new sources of energy that are much less reliant on foreign development or influence. Taking this step backwards further exacerbates our inability to influence international actors on these issues. While the global community moves on to new resources to power their societies, the U.S. will continue to find itself reliant on harmful finite energy sources while reducing innovation in future technologies. The Defense Department continues to identify the threat posed by its energy consumption and reliance on fossil fuels in spite of current White House policies. The 2018 congressional budget deal provides an increase of $90 million in renewable energy and efficiency projects.

Fiscal responsibility is critical for effective national security. Though deficit hawks such as Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) and Representative Steve Womack (R-AR) have previously bemoaned the dangers of increased spending without offsets, they have been silent about the costs of driving up the deficit to spend more on defense. The White House’s overall $4.4 trillion budget for 2019 is expected to add $984 billion to the federal deficit next year alone, despite its cuts to social programs. Combined with tax cuts recently signed into law that reduce government revenue by approximately $1.5 trillion in the next decade, during that same 10-year term, this budget could increase the deficit by an estimated $7 trillion. And this is a hard lesson the country has debated before.

By contributing even more to the imbalance of Smart Power, the Trump administration’s approach to national security spending demonstrates exactly the wrong way to address growing security concerns. Increasing military spending while reducing diplomatic and foreign aid spending; increasing nuclear weapons spending while reducing non-proliferation spending; and increasing the deficit in the name of national security (while calling a budget deficit a national security risk) all make the United States less safe. Indeed, this budget proposal could pose the very threat to U.S. national security, which Trump hopes to overcome.

Image: President Donald Trump speaks to troops during a visit to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., March 13, 2018. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

 

About the Author(s)

Bishop Garrison

Interim Executive Director of the Truman National Security Project and Truman Center for National Policy; member of the board at Council for a Livable World; West Point Graduate (2002); served two deployments in Iraq in the Army; served in national security positions in the Obama administration; served as deputy foreign policy adviser on the Clinton campaign. Follow him on Twitter (@BishopGarrison).