The 2018 Budget Proposal: Less State, More Defense

News outlets have been reviewing the Trump administration’s proposed budget for FY 2018. The proposal makes deep cuts to several federal agencies and spending categories, while also increasing funding to a select few agencies. The article linked above discusses the budget breakdown in greater depth, comparing different programs and agencies to see where the cuts fall. Notably, some programs and agencies associated with foreign policymaking receive deep cuts. Here’s a quick breakdown of the Post’s report concerning some of the key agencies and programs that deal with foreign affairs.

  • The State Department, USAID, and various international programs housed within Treasury receive cuts amounting to approximately 29% compared to the previous year. This article notes that cuts to state include an almost 50% reduction in spending support for US operations in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas. There is also a reduction in US contributions to UN peacekeeping operations.
  • By comparison, the Department of Defense receives a $52 billion increase over the previous year’s spending, amounting to an increase of about 9% according to the Post’s report.
  • Related, Veterans’ Affairs is slated to receive an increase of $4.4 billion, which is 6.6% more than its previous year’s budget.
  • Homeland Security would receive an increase of $2.8 billion, a 7% increase over the previous year.

These cuts may sound appealing to President Trump’s base, many of whom likely favor extreme reductions in federal spending. The increases in spending on the military and other areas, like border patrol agents, may seem tolerable, or perhaps even desirable, given the Trump campaign’s rhetoric and priorities, as well as the fact that the budget proposal appears to trade those increases for cuts in other budget areas. However, it’s far from clear based on current reports that many of these budgetary changes are going to lead to increases in overall security or defense, and there are serious reasons to believe that these cuts will hurt US foreign policy goals and influence around the world. For example, while 9% increase in military spending might seem like it would dramatically enhance our military preparedness, it may not lead to a net increase in defense capabilities if we consider the possibility that we are simply going to see services provided by other departments shifting to the DOD. Rather, that added $52 billion to the DOD is not all going to go to enhancing military capabilities—some portion is going to be spent on programs previously run by other agencies. For example, reductions in aid programs housed within the State Department may wind up being transitioned in some form or another to the DOD. In a sense, State Department operations have been supporting and subsidizing DOD operations and broader national security efforts. Furthermore, given that these other agencies are probably more efficient, I’m skeptical that DOD implementation of such programs would translate into a dollar-for-dollar tradeoff between State and Defense.

The Defense Department is also often lacking in the human capital and expertise that other agencies, like State, often possess. This means that they will not only be left trying to replicate programs run previously by other agencies, but will likely be doing so less effectively as well. Asking the Defense department to take on more and more responsibility in US foreign policymaking does not make the political, social, cultural, and economic dimensions of the problems the United States faces disappear, and it does not seem safe, fair, or appropriate to be asking young military personnel with no training or experience to take on such responsibilities, or to perform these tasks with the same efficiency that a career regional specialist, or other issue area expert, might. Where they are already deployed it is far more efficient to ask other government officials or experts, who have spent years familiarizing themselves with the political, social, and economic issues, to disseminate that knowledge to military personnel to enable them to focus on their key mission. In other cases, using political, diplomatic, and economic resources may reduce the need to deploy military resources in the first place.

This should not be a surprise. The idea that the State Department plays a central role in the provision of national security, particularly during the post-war period, is not news. Although it may seem ironic, military leaders have been the most visible voices in support of greater funding for the State Department. Secretary of State George Marshall’s 1947 Harvard commencement speech, which highlights the economic and political dimensions to the emerging conflict between the United States and Soviet Union, is perhaps the most famous endorsement of foreign assistance by a prominent (then retired) military leader:

Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist. Such assistance, I am convinced, must not be on a piecemeal basis as various crises develop. Any assistance that this Government may render in the future should provide a cure rather than a mere palliative. Any government that is willing to assist in the task of recovery will find full co-operation I am sure, on the part of the United States Government. Any government which maneuvers to block the recovery of other countries cannot expect help from us. Furthermore, governments, political parties, or groups which seek to perpetuate human misery in order to profit therefrom politically or otherwise will encounter the opposition of the United States.

Again, there is a certain irony in the fact that the Marshall Plan, which in many ways ushered in the era of large-scale, institutionalized foreign aid programs—programs that are now under threat in the name of national security—is named after a career military officer who helped lead America through one of the greatest threats to its national security. And while Marshall rose to prominence in his role as Army Chief of Staff during World War II, it is worth noting that he mentions the military exactly zero times in the course of his speech, instead placing heavy emphasis on poverty reduction, economic development, recovery, and integration. Policymakers during this time worried that non-military factors, like hunger and poverty, would lead to communist/Soviet gains in Western Europe. Notably, you cannot really bomb hunger.

More recently we have seen calls from several military leaders for greater governmental support of the State Department. In February several retired generals wrote to Congress urging its members to not cut State Department and foreign aid programs, specifically noting that “We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone”. Members of President Trump’s own administration have emphasized the importance of the State Department—Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently told Congressional leaders that “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately… So I think it’s a cost-benefit ratio. The more that 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 an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene”. As highlighted by Secretary Mattis, reducing State Department funding does not really free up resources that have been denied to the Defense Department, but creates a void that Defense needs to subsequently fill. If there are potential crises that the State Department or US diplomatic efforts have been able to keep from spilling over, then these cuts could result in the military having to take on a greater role in managing newly emerging, or escalating conflicts. And unless we see an increase in military personnel then this means further stretching existing military personnel and resources.

It is also worth noting that not all foreign aid programs are delivered through civilian agencies—the military has, in many instances, replicated the basic kinds of development-oriented programs that have been run through the State Department for decades. My own interviews with military personnel indicate that service members from all ranks who have been a part of these military exercises, which often involve the construction of schools, clinics, the vaccination of thousands of people, etc., view these activities as essential, and as having a tremendous impact actual conditions on the ground, as well as public attitudes towards the US abroad. Some of our preliminary research indicates that these missions, which do not typically have a traditional “military” component to them, do lead to improved attitudes towards the US military and US government. However, even in the largely military-run exercises that I’ve focused on in recent research, the State Department plays a critical role in pre- and post-operation planning and coordination with the host-state government. Further, while attitudes among military personnel to these exercises as a whole was favorable, some officers who participated in these deployments expressed frustration that they did not receive more training on the historical and cultural backgrounds of the countries they were deploying to, noting that some understanding of the local political, cultural, and economic context could have helped soldiers at all levels. Organizations like the State Department are much better positioned to provide this kind of guidance than the Defense Department.

Beyond the functional importance of the State Department, there is the fact that this budget may be serving as a signal of sorts to Trump’s base. Regardless of the current state of the budget proposal, it is unlikely to emerge from Congress in a way that closely resembles its current form. However, given the Trump campaign’s promises to “drain the swamp” and to rein in the excesses of Washington, proposing 30% cuts to the State Department and other agencies will likely sound like a serious blow to the Washington establishment. Further, any increases made in Congress will only serve to reinforce Trump’s rhetoric regarding corrupt elites. However, if we look at the basic makeup of the federal budget the impact of these cuts on overall federal spending is clearly diminished.

Federal outlays by agency and select program area, 1962–2015.

The figure above shows federal outlays from 1962–2015 in constant 2015 dollars broken down by selected federal agencies and program. Note this is not the entirety of the federal budget, just some particularly key areas for comparison. The bulk of federal spending is allocated to a few agencies and programs: Social Security, Defense, HHS, and Treasury. Notably, funding programs that are often discussed for cuts, like foreign aid, are not even visible compared to larger programs like Social Security and Defense. Most of these large spending categories constitute mandatory spending (things like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc.). Treasury spending largely constitutes payments on US debt. Defense is generally the largest category of discretionary spending. People are notoriously bad at estimating the relative weight of different spending categories, particularly in areas like foreign affairs, so it’s not a surprise that the administration might try to score points here. However, it is clear that cuts to these areas will not seriously impact broader federal spending patterns given that the expansion of the federal budget in recent years largely stems from increase in spending in mandatory areas. Essentially this budget proposal would make serious cuts to key institutions associated with the conduct of US foreign policy, potentially damaging US national security in the process, in return for negligible budgetary rewards.

Importantly, public perceptions of what foreign aid is, how much we give, and how it interfaces with a range of policy areas tend to miss the mark. As noted above, the public consistently overestimates by large margins how much foreign aid the United States gives each year. Research has also shown that only 29% of the public has even heard of USAID. In spite of widespread ignorance as to aggregate amounts of aid and aid agencies, this same study shows that voters do appear to express differing and intuitively sensible preferences according to partisanship over how the United States should allocate aid, with some apparently favoring development goals while others favor giving aid to states that import more from the US. However, these questions still do not approach the subject of public opinion in a way that reveals what the public knows about how aid is actually spent, or what the actual benefits of various programs are. I assume public knowledge of these issues is fairly low. Accordingly, if we assume that most people believe the United States is just giving out money to poor people around the globe, it is not surprising that they might favor cuts to these agencies, or at least believe that US foreign policy will not suffer for it. Alternatively, saying that you’re going to increase spending on defense seems like an obvious way to make America safer, so the tradeoff is likely seen as a no-brainer for many Americans. Improving the public’s understanding of the State Department’s role in US foreign policy and in ensuring American national security more broadly, but also improving their understanding of the role played by foreign aid more narrowly, could help to bolster popular support for these embattled institutions. Once more, in somewhat ironic fashion, it may fall to military leaders to take on a greater and more vocal role in this process of highlighting the importance of non-military institutions in US foreign policy.

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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