Letter to the Editor: Why Larger Defense Budgets Don’t Need to Come at the Expense of “Soft Power”

In his recent post (“The National Security Threat of Trump’s Defense Budget”) Bishop Garrison argues that the Trump administration’s proposed increases to the defense budget threaten national security because he believes they come at the expense of funding that supports “soft power.” But this sets up a false choice, and overlooks the fact that leaders of both political parties seem to agree on the need to boost military spending.

As Garrison’s bio notes, he worked as a foreign policy adviser on the Clinton campaign, which also advocated for more military spending. In September 2016, William Hartung wrote that the “costs of Hillary Clinton’s approach are less clear, but under her current proposals, Pentagon spending would definitely increase.” Although he objects to a defense budget increase, Peter Beinart, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, wrote in a February essay that:

Nancy Pelosi’s office fired off an email to House Democrats proclaiming that, “In our negotiations, Congressional Democrats have been fighting for increases in funding for defense.” Chuck Schumer’s office announced that, “We fully support President Trump’s Defense Department’s request.”

Garrison suggests that “increasing hard power” through military spending would come at the “cost of significantly decreased soft power” (which he defines as “efforts like diplomacy and foreign aid”). However, he offers no evidence that the cuts in the “soft power” efforts he favors are directly related to increases in defense spending.

Let’s be clear: No one is suggesting that the State Department is anything but crucial to America’s interests. Even as he proposes deep cuts that many in his own party resisted last year and are resisting again, Trump nevertheless expressed gratitude just last month to the “extraordinary men and women of the State Department,” whom he said “collectively play a vital role in advancing the safety, liberty, prosperity, and all good things of the United States.” Trump’s selection of Mike Pompeo – previously serving as the CIA director and a close adviser to the president – to lead the Department might be another sign of how important Trump considers its role. Foreign Policy recently reported that Pompeo seems “to be injecting a new sense of optimism into the State Department.”

Moreover, is the State Department – which just moved into a spanking-new, billion-dollar embassy in London – really suffering to the extent that Garrison and others seem to think it is? At almost 75,000 employees, the Trump administration’s State Department is actually larger than the one over which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presided in 2013 (70,704), and is today bigger than at any time during the Obama administration (except in 2016, when it peaked at 75,231 employees).

Furthermore, the State Department maintains the largest footprint abroad of any nation. Martin Armstrong at Statista says thatdespite President Trump’s push for America First and a diplomatic turn inwards, the modern status quo of the U.S. as unofficial leader in world affairs is still reflected in [the data].” He notes that “no other country has more diplomatic posts in foreign countries than the United States” with 271 offices “spread around the world.”

What about “foreign aid”? A new Congressional Research Service (CRS) report shows that the U.S. provides about $34 billion in foreign aid, whereas the second largest donor – Germany – gives about $25 billion. Thus, even if the full 29 percent cut that Garrison worries about were applied to foreign aid (and not elsewhere in the State Department) the U.S. would still be very close to being the world’s leader, if not the leader.

Sure, countries give more in foreign aid than does the U.S. in terms of a percentage of gross national income (see here), including Germany. However, the sheer size of the U.S. contribution still matters. Simply because Luxembourg – the second richest country in the world per capita – can afford to donate a significantly higher percentage of its GNI than even Germany or the United Kingdom, doesn’t translate into any appreciable increase in its national security. With a tiny military, it is almost completely dependent upon NATO (for which the U.S. is the biggest contributor) and, despite its enormous financial strength (it is second only to the U.S. as an investment fund center) ranks just 31st in global power.

Regardless, before we praise our German friends too much for their generosity, remember Germany is grossly underfunding its military. Indeed, a German parliamentary armed forces commissioner concluded the country’s military is virtually “not deployable for collective defense,” the Washington Post reported in February. Consequently, the U.S. military has had to fill the resulting NATO security gap. This is why presidents of both parties have complained about “free riders” among NATO allies.

Garrison also cites what he says is a “non-partisan group of more than 150 retired three-and four-star flag officers” who “released a letter in February, through the U.S. Global Leadership Conference (sic).” Actually, as I detail here, the letter was organized by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (or “USGLC”) through what it calls its “National Security Advisory Council.” Why are defense and other contractors who are in the aid business so well represented among USGLC’s “coalition” and “partners”? Keep in mind that a third or more of “foreign aid” is security assistance, that is, weapons, defense services, and training to foreign militaries and security organizations.

While some foreign aid critics believe that this kind of spending could actually harm U.S. interests, my own view is simply that too often its usefulness has not been demonstrated. As I pointed out here, in 2016 CRS found:

In most cases, the success or failure of U.S. foreign aid programs is not entirely clear, in part because historically, most aid programs have not been evaluated for the purpose of determining their actual impact. Many programs are not even evaluated on basic performance. (Emphasis added.)

Similarly, in a study released in March of 2017, the Government Accountability Office found that “of the six agencies providing the most on foreign aid…about a quarter of their program evaluations in 2015 lacked adequate information on results to inform future programs.” Before pouring billions more into foreign aid, we need to get a better handle on what is and isn’t working.

Still, what about “soft power”? Yes, it’s true that, according to one study, the ranking of U.S “soft power” has slipped from first to third place in 2017, but third place is the ranking it occupied on 2015. Perhaps more importantly, that is where the United States ranked in 2013 when Clinton, the candidate for whom Garrison worked, was secretary of state. In short, the Trump administration seems to be doing about as well as the Obama administration with respect to “soft power.”

Moreover, the two nations ahead of the U.S. – France and the United Kingdom – are NATO members, and are countries that cannot begin to carry the “hard power” burden that the U.S. does as it maintains its status as the world’s most powerful nation. Since Trump’s proposed defense budget increase will help the U.S. continue to maintain the world’s top military, something of a division of labor among allies may make sense. Should we really be distraught that two of our closest allies, who cannot carry the “hard power” burden, are able to lead in soft power?

To me, soft power is not necessarily all about government-funded aid. The Almanac of American Philanthropy reports that “private giving is now a much bigger part of how Americans aid the poor in foreign lands than official government aid,” and pegs the amount at an impressive $44 billion.

What is more is that the Almanac says that “Americans are much more willing than other peoples to voluntarily donate money to help the poor and stricken in foreign lands.” This generosity on the part of ordinary Americans may help explain why, despite ample evidence of Trump’s personal unpopularity around the globe, the Pew Research Center still reported that:

The American people, for instance, continue to be well-regarded – across the 37 nations polled, a median of 58% say they have a favorable opinion of Americans. U.S. popular culture, likewise, has maintained appeal abroad, and many people overseas still believe Washington respects the personal freedoms of its people.

Moreover, Garrison seems to tout his own “efforts to win hearts and minds” in Iraq as a soldier as an example of laudable “soft power.” This is puzzling given that whatever effects he and his fellow soldiers produced during their deployments to Iraq, they were at best transient, and are almost nonexistent today.

This isn’t Garrison’s fault – former Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, explained in Foreign Affairs that the strategy Garrison was trying to implement was deeply flawed, and observed that “civilian U.S. government agencies” could do no better as they “have spotty records when it comes to implementing reform and reconciliation, even in countries at peace.” The point is that soft power is no panacea.

Paradoxically, Garrison’s efforts in Iraq – which were funded by the defense budget not the State Department — suggest that the Department of Defense funds many (albeit different) activities that actually amount to diplomacy and “soft power.” For example, the CRS notes that DoD’s “engagement in U.S. government disaster relief and humanitarian assistance activities is longstanding” and that:

U.S. diplomacy benefits from the U.S. military’s capacity to project itself rapidly into extreme situations, such as disasters and other humanitarian emergencies, enhancing the U.S. image as a humanitarian actor. Humanitarian assistance, military training, and other forms of assistance also provide opportunities to cultivate good relations with foreign populations, militaries, and governments.

In the real world, the military strength and logistical expertise the defense budget supports has much to do with the success of diplomacy. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made that point recently when he told his “South Korean and Japanese counterparts they must maintain a strong defensive stance so the diplomats can negotiate from a position of strength.” Military power can create the enabling environment for diplomatic success: The security umbrella the U.S. provided in both Europe and Asia after World War II facilitated the emergence of the staunchest U.S. diplomatic and military allies.

Garrison also overlooks the downsides of soft power. In his book, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force, State Department veteran Eliot Cohen recognizes that forms of soft power “have their place in any country’s statecraft,” but also recognizes:

[S]oft power engenders conflict. The appeal of American democratic manners, of rights for women and religious minorities and popular culture, particularly through its entertainment industry, engenders as much hostility and animus as it does attraction.

In assessing the defense budget, Garrison also objects to the current spending plan for the nuclear weapons enterprise, saying that “this type of unaffordability is a continuing and unsustainable issue.” Actually, there has long been significant bipartisan “support for a strong nuclear deterrent, regardless of the price tag that accompanies it.” It isn’t hard to understand why. Bob Work, deputy defense secretary under Obama, testified before Congress that “the choice right now is modernizing or losing deterrent capability in the 2020s and 2030s.” On cost, Obama’s Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that “most people do not realize that spending on the nuclear program is a small percentage of total defense spending.” While no one likes to spend money on weapons – especially nuclear weapons – America can afford this essential ultimate insurance policy for our security.

There are plenty of reasons for critics to call out Trump and his administration, but let’s maximize our effort to work together when it comes to our nation’s defense. If we need more funding for diplomacy, don’t bill our military for it.  

About the Author(s)

Charles J. Dunlap, Jr.

Professor of the Practice of Law and Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School He retired from the Air Force in 2010 as a Major General.