WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has submitted a budget that would sharply cut funding for diplomacy and development, leading critics to warn that the move will reduce US standing and influence around the globe.
Funding for the State Department and US Agency for International Development would drop by about 32%, with broad cuts to programs focused on security, economic growth, humanitarian aid and disaster response, as well as in contributions to international organizations like the UN.
Doug Pitkin, director of the agency’s Bureau of Budget and Planning, said the budget request “requires tough tradeoffs,” but that it reflects the administration’s global priorities, including national security, support for US economic interests and the fight against terrorism.
The administration said the budget reflects President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda and is responsive to “the realities of the world in the 21st Century” in ways that will allow for “a new era of global stability and American prosperity.”
Critics strongly disagreed.
“The Trump foreign policy sidelines diplomacy and development; threatening American leadership, risking American lives and ceding ground to Russia, China, or whoever else wants to fill the void,” said Rep. Elliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
His counterpart on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, pointed out that military leaders including Defense Secretary James Mattis have consistently called for strong financing for the State Department. Mattis, as head of US Central Command in 2013, once told a Senate hearing that “if you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
“A slap in the face”
“This slashing of our foreign operations and assistance makes the world more dangerous for America and Americans, and is a slap in the face to all the American personnel who work every day to keep this country safe and build a better world,” Cardin said in a statement.
Both Democrats predicted a bipartisan pushback. Indeed, California Rep. Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement, “I don’t support deep cuts to the State Department and Agency for International Development that undermine national security.”
Royce added: “Diplomacy matters. It helps keep America strong and our troops out of combat.”
And Royce has allies in the Senate. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told an audience in April that cuts, which he said would be at 29%, would happen “over my dead body.”
“I can’t buy enough bullets”
Obama administration officials spoke up as well. Michelle Flournoy, a former defense official, said it was “hard to imagine something more harmful to national security than Trump budget foreign aid cuts.” Flournoy was speaking on a panel organized by the global poverty organization CARE with Ret. Adm. Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mullen observed that “the more you invest in overseas development, the less you need to spend on the military.” And referencing Mattis’ 2013 comment, he added that cuts lead to more destabilization. “I can’t buy enough bullets,” he said. “We’ll never be able to fight our way through this. Ever.”
The administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2018 funding for overall State Department operations is $25.6 billion, and its request for Overseas Contingency Operations, used for funding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, is $12 billion.
The budget would allocate $7.1 billion in security assistance to other nations — with Israel continuing to get an annual $3.1 billion — but assistance for other countries would shift “from grants to loans,” said Hari Sastry, director of the State Department’s Office of US Foreign Assistance Resources.
Critics have said this change could drive countries with smaller defense budgets to look to other arms suppliers, including China or Russia, potentially reducing US influence, arms sales and awareness of other arsenals. Sastry said the change would potentially let “some get more assistance, but on a repayable basis.”
Food assistance programs would be cut by $1.7 billion, humanitarian assistance funding would drop by $2.4 billion, or 31%, global health programs would be cut by $2.2 billion, or 25%. A State Department official said that generous levels of congressional funding in the last two fiscal years means the agency will be able to carry over funds into 2018 and keep spending at a rate similar to last year’s.
“We will be able to respond adequately to humanitarian challenges this fiscal year, including providing assistance to famine ridden countries,” the official said.
Asking others “to step up”
Funding for climate initiatives would be eliminated. “Foreign assistance funding is just one tool to address climate related issues,” Sastry said. “We’ll continue to work on this challenge even if it’s not linked to our foreign assistance.”
Funding for UN peacekeeping operations will be capped at 25% of the total budget, State officials said, down from the current 28%.
The budget asks for $5.6 billion to support the anti-ISIS coalition, and $1.1 billion for a “comprehensive effort” to shut down transnational criminal organizations that ship drugs and illicit goods across the border.
In a statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the budget would ensure the department operates more efficiently and “restores the leadership the American people and allies depend on for stability, security and prosperity.”
Asked how to reconcile that goal in the face of such steep cuts, Sastry said “the budget does acknowledge that our operations must become more efficient. It also recognizes that some of these global challenges cannot be met by the US alone.”
He added that “we’ll be asking others to step up and do more.”