Kori N. Schake is the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Brett McGurk is the Payne Distinguished Lecturer at Stanford University and served in senior national security positions under President Trump and former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
President Trump’s 2017 national security strategy was a wakeup call. The era of unparalleled U.S. influence risks eroding to the advantage of China and Russia, it says. These countries are now working more closely together than at any time in the past 40 years and are determined to expand their global influence at U.S. expense. Ours is now an era of “great power competition,” and we must prepare ourselves and adapt — or we may lose.
Unfortunately, Trump seems not to have read his own strategy. His report says: “We must upgrade our diplomatic capabilities to compete in the current environment.” Yet his budgets, and lack of care in tending to alliances, do the opposite.
Trump’s 2020 budget slashes diplomatic-related spending by nearly a quarter. Its spending on defense is 18 times higher than on foreign affairs. Our most experienced diplomats, in turn, have left the State Department in droves, including 60 percent of career ambassadors in 2017 alone. Key ambassadorships — including across the Middle East — are still unfilled, leaving our diplomacy adrift. Foreign Service recruiting is also plummeting, with fewer Americans taking its entrance exam today than at any point over the past decade. An entering class of the Foreign Service in 2018 was roughly 100 people , down from 366 in 2016 and 450 a decade ago.
China is taking a different approach. President Xi Jinping has declared that “it is time for China to take center stage in the world,” and his budgets are matching words with deeds. In the six years since Xi assumed power, China’s investment in its diplomatic ranks has more than doubled . Its rate of growth for spending on diplomacy in 2018 grew twice as much as its spending on defense (15 percent to 8 percent). What used to be a tiny foreign service now counts 7,500 diplomats , second only to ours. U.S. diplomats are reportedly outnumbered 5 to 1 by Chinese counterparts working on economic initiatives in Africa and elsewhere.
These investments do not even include those of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the $1 trillion plan to entrench Beijing’s economic statecraft across Eurasia and Africa.
If Washington continues to increase its spending on defense while gutting its spending on diplomacy, it will not only fail to compete but also increase the risks of future conflict. It was a strong military together with experienced, resourced and far-sighted diplomacy that won the Cold War with few shots fired. The United States must similarly invest for this new era of great-power rivalry, particularly against disciplined, patient and resourced competitors.
If Trump will not lead, it falls to Congress to prepare the country. To date, Congress has rightly resisted Trump’s proposed spending cuts, but spending alone is not the issue. We need radical rethinking on how the diplomatic corps can recruit and retain talented Americans.
We propose the Renewing American Diplomacy Act to establish a bipartisan commitment that investments in diplomacy must keep pace with investments in the military. In addition, our proposal can transform the recruitment and retention of talented Americans from the institutions no competitor can match: our colleges and universities.
This would include three elements. First, it would expand student loan repayment programs for those who sign up for a State Department career out of college. The State Department is currently authorized to pay up to $10,000 per year for a subset of student loans in exchange for at least three years of service. The program maxes out after six years (or $60,000). Our proposal expands this program for exceptional candidates to forgive student loans entirely after five years of service.
Second, it would establish the diplomatic equivalent of a Reserve Officer Training Corps. ROTC offers a scholarship path for students who commit to a fixed period of military service. Our proposal establishes a similar program to pay the last two years of tuition for talented students who agree to enter the Foreign Service and serve overseas after graduation. While in school, course work in strategy, history and languages, and summer programs can prepare these budding diplomats to lead. And State Department diplomats in residence at select institutions can serve as mentors as the next generation prepares to serve.
Third, it would invest in graduate-level education for qualified State Department personnel who serve for at least five years and agree to continue for at least another three after receiving a degree. Some of our best military commanders, such as David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster, hold doctorates because the military invests in long-term leadership and intellectual growth. The State Department has fewer opportunities for its personnel and programs that are more ad hoc than designed to comprehensively train and retain its most talented diplomats.
These three initiatives, together with the principle that spending on diplomacy will match the rate of growth in spending on defense, can help revitalize our diplomatic corps and enable its success for the significant challenges ahead. What the GI Bill did for the military, Congress should do for diplomacy.