White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly said on Oct. 12 that he and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis used to say before retiring from the military that if the State Department was not well funded, they would need "more bullets." (Reuters)

At the White House news briefing on Thursday, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly fielded questions from reporters aimed in part at tamping down uncertainty about the security of his position in the administration.

At one point, he was asked what issues facing the nation kept him up at night. Kelly’s answer, in short, was not much.

“The good news is, out there we have a great State Department doing the diplomacy thing night and day,” he said. But then he added something striking.

“As Jim Mattis and I have many, many times said when we were in uniform: If we don’t fund the State Department properly, buy us more bullets,” he said. Later, he expanded on that thought. “We don’t like to think of things turning military, but that’s always an option. The great thing about our military is it’s a real deterrent factor around the world.”

That aphorism — spend money on diplomacy or you have to spend money on war — is meant to be cautionary. You don’t want war, of course, which is why you invest time and money on creating diplomatic solutions to problems.

Kelly’s use of it, though, is fraught. The Trump administration isn’t investing resources in the State Department to the extent that past presidents have, both in terms of funding and staffing. And at the same time, Trump is indeed spending more on bullets.

A profile of Tillerson in the New Yorker made this point quite well.

Shortly after arriving at State, “Tillerson told staff members that he intended to cut State’s budget by nearly a third, possibly eliminating two thousand diplomatic jobs and billions of dollars in foreign aid,” the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins wrote. At the same time, Trump’s budget proposed adding $54 billion to the budget of the Defense Department.

Less diplomacy. More bullets.

Filkins quoted a former Obama administration official who made a comment that mirrored Kelly’s.

“All of our tools right now are military. When all of your tools are military, those are the tools you reach for,” the official said.

We know how Trump feels about this balance.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump said in a tweet earlier this month, using the nickname he had coined for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

Trump has repeatedly disparaged diplomatic efforts in North Korea and in Iran, with a focus on the nuclear deal in that country. He’s hinted darkly about an imminent conflict with North Korea and pledged that the United States might “have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” in a speech at the United Nations.

None of this, Kelly would have us believe, keeps him up at night. He has confidence in the State Department’s efforts and that the strength of the military can be deployed if needed. Inadvertently, though, he stoked a concern shared by many Americans: that the administration prefers the latter to the former.