Trump's Deep Cuts to State Department Budget Hurt Diplomacy

(Bloomberg View) -- President Donald Trump's latest proposal to eviscerate the State Department's budget may already be dead on arrival in Congress. It's nonetheless a reminder of how the administration's failure to take diplomacy seriously is undermining its own strategic goals.   

Barely two months after warning in its new National Security Strategy of “growing political, economic and military competitions,” the White House has delivered a foreign-affairs budget that amounts to diplomatic disarmament. It calls for a 29 percent cut to U.S. diplomatic and foreign aid spending next year -- the most to any federal department. Among its ill-considered targets are democracy promotion, peacekeeping, and the fight against disease and climate change. Even worse, the Office of Management and Budget pegs the department’s outlays in 2023 as only 58 percent of this year’s.

Such cleaver cuts may mostly be an empty love letter to Trump’s base, but the administration has already done lasting damage to U.S. diplomacy. More than one-third of the State Department’s 150 positions requiring Senate confirmation remain empty. The U.S. has no ambassador in Seoul to blunt North Korea's recent charm offensive, nor in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and numerous other hot spots. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s controversial restructuring of the State Department has driven away some of America's best and brightest young officers.

More broadly, the president’s erratic rhetoric has tainted global opinion of the U.S. and threatens to turn a decline in soft power into an outright deficit. On recent trips to the Middle East and Latin America, Tillerson’s effort to advance the fight against shared threats was undercut by Trump’s angry denunciations of U.S. partners as “laughing at us” and U.S. aid as a waste of money

For all its failings, the Trump team's strategic vision isn't completely off-base. The return of greater geopolitical competition is real and demands a smart, cost-effective approach. And the fact is, both in terms of personnel and spending as a percentage of federal outlays, the State Department at the end of the Barack Obama years was at historic highs. But lopping off nearly 30 percent of foreign-affairs spending in one blow makes no sense -- especially if you think the world is so dangerous that defense spending must increase by 13 percent.

Congress can use upcoming budget hearings to safeguard proven programs and encourage prudent investments in a more efficient State Department. Tillerson’s plans for improving information technology and unifying efforts to promote investment in developing countries are both good starts that deserve support.

But Congress should also recognize that after more than a year in office, the Trump administration still needs stiff reminders of why diplomacy is a serious and worthwhile taxpayer investment. One way to deliver that message: Use its constitutional power to reject dubious political ambassadorial picks whose selection threatens to undermine U.S. influence. With tight budgets, empty chairs and growing foreign-policy challenges, every appointment must count.

--Editors: James Gibney, Romesh Ratnesar.

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