Diplomacy: The wrong place to start slashing
We've heard a lot over the past few months about the decline of American global leadership. Amid discussion of economic troubles and long-term debt, we're losing our swagger - and we're focusing inward, trying to assess what's gone wrong. Apparently it's a slippery slope from "Let's focus on domestic issues" to "Forget the rest of the world!" People are asking how we can possibly spend money overseas when we face necessary cuts at home. Diplomacy - let alone humanitarian aid - strikes some as a luxury. That's more than a bah-humbug concern.
In their "Pledge to America" and elsewhere, Republicans have advocated returning all non-security spending, including international affairs funding, to 2008 levels. When Congress returns next month, the Republican majority in the House is likely to push that agenda. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the incoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently announced that "there is much fat" in the State Department and foreign aid budgets, "which makes some cuts obvious." A security and deficit hawk, she has argued that negotiations and "diplomatic niceties" show countries that "they can string us along and have no actions take place."
Last week, Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Dan Burton (Ind.) and other Republicans worked to block the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (S. 987). The act unanimously passed the Senate and appropriated no new funds, but the Republicans objected to it on fiscal grounds anyway. Since the bill would have used existing resources, voting it down saved the country no money.
Ros-Lehtinen drafted her own bill on child marriage (H.R. 2475), but the legislation merely called for drafting a strategy - without authorizing the government to act. What does this say to regimes that permit child marriage? That they can "string us along" when we demand change?
Such political shadowboxing does nothing for young girls the world over. And if this is the Republican response to international affairs projects that are already funded, we should expect dramatic cuts when Ros-Lehtinen's committee considers bills appropriating new funds.
Public money should, of course, never be squandered, and these days every dollar counts. Yet that holds true for military spending, agricultural subsidies and everything else. There is fat to cut throughout the budget - the recent extension of ethanol tax credits is a prime candidate - and despite the attention it has attracted from Republicans, international affairs represents only 1.4 percent of federal spending.
Put another way, the entire international affairs budget this year was about $53 billion. Even cutting the entire thing - the funding for aid, development, embassies and more - is pretty meaningless given that the national debt is pushing $14 trillion.
For the nation's diplomatic and development initiatives, however, large cuts could be devastating. Returning funding to 2008 levels would mean cuts of 20 to 35 percent from current spending levels, all to save us a little less than $20 billion per year. That's roughly the same amount we would save by eliminating the State Department ($17 billion) - an equally bad idea.
More important, wholesale cuts to the international affairs budget could cost the United States massively in lost political and economic opportunities. Well-funded diplomacy is crucial to national security. Just ask Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As he wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last spring, "The more significant the cuts, the longer military operations will take, and the more and more lives are at risk!"
Economic destitution abroad fuels radicalism and threatens international peace. Ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates. As he told the United States Global Leadership Coalition in September, "Economic development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers."
Development dollars spent today also help build markets for tomorrow. Ask British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. As he told the United Nations in September, "Growth in the developing world means new partners with which to trade and new sources of global growth."
Meanwhile, the Defense Department received at least $700 billion this year. Our military leaders warn that we need smart diplomatic and development programs to meet our national security challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Maybe it's time for deficit hawks such as Ros-Lehtinen to get dovish on where they commit the country's money. Committing a little to diplomacy and development in the short run could help us reduce defense spending in the long run. That would be a real step toward fiscal responsibility - which might be just what we need to get that swagger back.
Conor Williams won The Post's 2010 America's Next Great Pundit contest. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.