With a refugee crisis at its worst level since World War II and famines threatening millions across the globe, the drastic international affairs budget cuts sought by the Trump administration could lead to more death and misery for people who could have been saved, according to humanitarian and foreign policy organizations.
“These programs do keep people alive and they do save people when people are in their most trying times,” said Kate Phillips-Barrasso, director of policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee. “The idea of scaling back that considerable an amount [of funding] and over such a short time is unfathomable given the challenges they’re facing out there.”
The proposed budget cuts for the 2018 fiscal year would slash funding for the State Department and foreign aid by 28 percent and eliminate some critical programs and emergency reserve funding for refugee assistance. If the cuts are approved by Congress, the International Rescue Committee estimates up to 1 million displaced people in the Middle East and 500,000 in Africa won’t get help, Phillips-Barrasso told The Diplomat. More than 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes across the world, primarily due to war or persecution. That includes more than 5 million people fleeing from Syria after years of devastating civil war.
More than 20 million people also are at risk of famine in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and northeastern Nigeria. So far, the United Nations has only received a tiny fraction of the $4.4 billion it’s requested to address the crisis. “I think it’s a fair statement to say there are lives on the line here,” Phillips-Barrasso said of the proposed budget cuts.
Budget by the Numbers
Trump’s “skinny” or preliminary 2018 budget, called “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” calls for a 28 percent cut in base funding for the State Department and USAID and a 35 percent reduction for Treasury International Programs.
Under the plan, climate change programs would be eliminated, as would the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). Educational and cultural exchange programs would take a big hit as well, although the Fulbright Program would be spared. Also on the chopping block is funding to the United Nations, where Trump wants to cap peacekeeping contributions to 25 percent, down from the current 28 percent. Some foreign military assistance would be shifted from grants to loans, although $3.1 billion in security aid to Israel would remain intact, and economic and development assistance would be redirected “to countries of greatest strategic importance to the U.S.” Food security and health programs would be slashed, and assistance would be cut to nearly every region in the world, with countries like Ukraine and Jordan taking a particularly large hit.
Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that Trump wants to fold USAID into the State Department and would eliminate a significant percentage of the agency’s field missions and regional bureaus. In addition, Bloomberg reported that the State Department plans to cut about 2,300 diplomatic and civil servant positions, or about 9 percent of its workforce worldwide.
Overall, the 2018 international affairs budget would shrink from $52.8 billion to $37.6 billion, which includes $12 billion for war-torn areas such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The entire international affairs budget totals only 1 percent of federal spending, but the proposed cuts would be used to help fund a $54 billion increase in military spending. In addition to State and USAID, the other big loser in Trump’s budget is the Environmental Protection Agency, which would see its funding slashed by 31 percent. The president has ruled out touching entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, leaving only discretionary spending to offset his defense hike, even though such spending constitutes a much smaller piece of federal outlays.
It’s highly unlikely that most of the cuts to the State Department and USAID will be enacted because of vocal bipartisan opposition in Congress and intense lobbying efforts from retired military generals, clergy, NGOs, and foreign policy organizations. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate appropriations committee overseeing international affairs, has said the proposed budget cuts will be “dead on arrival” in Congress. “This budget destroys soft power,” he said in February. “It puts our diplomats at risk and it’s going nowhere.”
In addition to the fiscal 2018 cuts, Trump had called for an immediate cut of $18 billion in non-defense spending in the current 2017 budget, which funds the government until September, including $2.8 billion in international affairs cuts. The president did not get much on his wish list, however, as Congress voted on the continuing resolution in early May to prevent a government shutdown.
Trump had been seeking a $30 billion increase for the Defense Department and $3 billion for the Department of Homeland Security to help pay for the massive expense of his oft-repeated campaign promise to build a wall along the Mexican border. In the end, he received a little less than half that amount, with border security going strictly toward maintenance and technology upgrades such as drones and sensors. Most agencies, including State, did not see the steep cuts they had feared (and quite a few, such as NIH, actually saw a bump).
With one crisis seemingly averted, Congress moves on to an even larger battle ahead. Trump’s 2018 budget proposal is merely an opening salvo in what is likely to be a bitter partisan fight in the coming months, as lawmakers wrangle over not only the budget, but also raising the debt ceiling and passing Trump’s signature initiatives such as tax reform and infrastructure stimulus. Democrats adamantly refuse to gut domestic programs to pay for an increase in defense spending, especially when the U.S. already spends nearly as much on defense as the next 14 countries combined. Republicans themselves are sharply divided among fiscal conservatives who want even deeper cuts; foreign policy hawks like Graham who think the defense increases are not enough but still want to preserve funding for diplomacy; and moderates who oppose cuts to popular programs such as Pell Grants, Americorps, Meals on Wheels and PBS.
Self-Interest and Security
Despite the bipartisan backlash it has inspired, Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint is a clear sign that he is fulfilling his campaign pledge to embrace a security-first approach that prioritizes defense over diplomacy and development.
Critics say that approach is shortsighted, and that Americans get a lot of bang for their buck. They say the 1 percent they spend on diplomacy prevents conflicts from breaking out and helps other nations become stable political and economic partners of the U.S.
“For more than 200 years, direct foreign assistance has served as a means to match American military might with the tangible power of our values,” Alicia Phillips Mandaville of the nonprofit InterAction wrote in a policy primer for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Foreign assistance is directly in America’s self-interest. We spend this money to keep American citizens safe by reducing the threats of pandemics like Ebola, preventing instability in key regions, and stopping human trafficking, among other important goals.
“As the world’s only superpower, the United States benefits more than any other country from global stability,” she added. “Foreign assistance is often deployed to counteract things that we believe may destabilize this system including terrorism, health pandemics like Zika, or refugees and migration.”
Mandaville noted that in addition to reducing poverty and improving health and education in developing nations, foreign assistance offers Americans a return on their investment by building the economies of potential consumers around the world. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), for instance, rewards governments that tackle corruption by investing in large projects, while OPIC enables American businesses to invest in countries that would otherwise be too risky for them.
But conservatives argue that many of these programs are wasteful and redundant — and better accomplished through the private sector. “The cut seems dramatic, but comes on the back of more than a decade of expansion during which the foreign operations budget nearly doubled,” James M. Roberts, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, wrote in the Daily Signal on March 17.
His colleague at Heritage, Jim Carafano, argued that those increases failed to make the world safer. Instead, they funded pet projects that tackled everything from biodiversity to LGBT rights and created a proliferation of special envoys with overlapping missions.
“The president’s dramatic budget cut will leave no choice but for the State Department and USAID” to consolidate and cut out the fat, Roberts wrote.
Likewise, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson defended the steep cuts, saying that with the U.S. engaged in fewer wars, the current level of spending was simply unsustainable.
“It acknowledges that U.S. engagement must be more efficient, that our aid be more effective, and that advocating the national interests of our country always be our primary mission,” he wrote in a letter to State employees. “Additionally, the budget is an acknowledgment that development needs are a global challenge to be met not just by contributions from the United States, but through greater partnership with and contributions from our allies and others.”
Winning the War, Losing the Peace
Yet critics point out that with the Trump administration’s growing military footprint in places such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, more — not fewer — diplomatic resources will be needed to secure a lasting peace once military victories are achieved.
“The military will be the first to tell you that a military operation is only as good as the diplomatic and political plan that comes with it,” Robert Malley, a vice president for policy at the International Crisis Group, told Ben Hubbard and Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times in a March 29 article.
That’s why in a letter released by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition in February, more than 120 retired generals and admirals from all branches of the armed services called on leaders in Congress to preserve international affairs funding in the 2018 budget.
“We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone — from confronting violent extremist groups like ISIS [Islamic State] in the Middle East and North Africa to preventing pandemics like Ebola and stabilizing weak and fragile states that can lead to greater instability,” the letter stated.
Opponents of the budget cuts also are hoping to find an ally in Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. When he was commander of U.S. Central Command, he acknowledged the importance of diplomacy during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in 2013. “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition,” he said. “The more we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.”
The proposed budget cuts are “a dangerous direction to go in,” U.S. Global Leadership Coalition President and CEO Liz Schrayer said. “I don’t see this budget going further at all,” she told The Diplomat. “When I look at this budget proposal, it feels to me like a relic of the Cold War.”
Trump’s nationalist “America First” agenda readily acknowledges “deep cuts to foreign aid.”
“It is time to prioritize the security and well-being of Americans and to ask the rest of the world to step up and pay its fair share,” Trump stated.
To that end, his budget abdicates responsibility for some foreign aid by challenging “international and non-governmental relief organizations to become more efficient and effective.”
The U.S. is by far the largest donor to global humanitarian crises, and many NGOs are already stretched thin by unprecedented demand and limited resources. There’s no way they can fill the gaps in humanitarian aid that would be triggered by the proposed budget cuts, said Phillips-Barrasso of the International Rescue Committee, which receives some U.S. foreign aid funding.
“There is already a lot of efficiency and organization in NGOs with small budgets,” she said. “That can’t be [used as] a cover for this kind of reduction because we’re talking in the billions and billions of dollars.”
Trump is reportedly eyeing $1 billion in cuts to U.N. peacekeeping operations and children’s and poverty programs. His 2018 budget also would eliminate money for U.N. climate change initiatives, USAID’s Complex Crises Fund and the State Department’s Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance account. In a letter to Congress, more than 100 Christian leaders said it is “our moral responsibility to urge you to support and protect the International Affairs Budget.”
“With just 1 percent of our nation’s budget, the International Affairs Budget has helped alleviate the suffering of millions; drastically cutting the number of people living in extreme poverty in half, stopping the spread of infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and Ebola, and nearly eliminating polio,” the letter stated. “Additionally, it promotes freedom and human rights, protecting religious freedom for millions around the world.”
The Trump administration fails to understand the interconnectedness of world affairs and how diplomacy and foreign aid increase global security, Schrayer said.
“Not having all the tools in their toolkit will impact us greatly in terms of our economic interest and our moral standing,” she said. “It would make America less safe.”
About the Author
Brendan L. Smith (www.brendanlsmith.com) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.