Trump's budget has a radical plan for remaking US foreign policy

During a 1954 White House luncheon, Winston Churchill told the assembled notables that “to jaw-jaw always is better than to war-war.” Diplomacy, Churchill had come to believe, was capable of resolving conflict more reliably and at far lower cost than any kind of military action.

President Trump’s budget outline is what would happen if one reversed Churchill’s principle entirely, and then built a government around it.

The Trump budget takes the $615 billion annual defense budget, $65 billion of which goes to funding current wars, and increases it by 9 percent ($54 billion). The operative word at the Pentagon is more: more troops for the Army, more ships for the Navy, and more planes for the Air Force.

Using the Pentagon’s massive budget as a baseline, this is a relatively small increase. But it’s paid for, in part, by a relatively huge cut to the State Department.

State’s $55 billion budget, $19 billion of which is spent on operations related to American wars, is slashed by 29 percent (leaving it with a total of $39 billion). The operative words for State are fewer and less: fewer diplomats, less development aid, and less support for international organizations like the United Nations.

The proposed increase in defense spending ($54 billion) is larger than the entire proposed State Department budget ($39 billion).

Now, this extreme proposal has virtually no chance of making it through Congress. “The proposal is not nearly enough for defense hawks, and its offsets [are] too consequential for most Democrats to ever see a chance of becoming law,” Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, tells me.

In a hearing held after the budget proposal’s release, Rep. Ted Yoho — a member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus — gave a preview of how this fight would play for Trump, vocally opposing the president’s plans for State.

“At a time when American leadership is needed more than ever, we must continue to invest in the International Affairs Budget,” he said. “Cutting American foreign aid ... will ultimately do nothing to address our current debt crisis and [create] yet another vacuum by the lack of American leadership, which will be filled by most likely a foe to our country and our ideals.”

Still, budgets offer a concrete manifestation of a president’s worldview, and this one makes Trump’s crystal clear. The new administration has virtually no interest in maintaining the traditional diplomatic pillars of American foreign policy, like support for the United Nations. Instead, it proposes to reorient American foreign policy around its military might. That’s why Trump just appointed a raft of officials to vacant senior positions in the Pentagon, but there’s no sign that he plans to do the same for Foggy Bottom anytime soon.

Since World War II, American leaders have seen diplomatic leadership as part and parcel of American strength. Trump’s “America First” approach — the phrase is the literal title of the budget — suggests this is no longer the case. His budget is gambling that the US can maintain its strategic position while radically scaling down its commitments to helping and working with other countries.

This would be a gigantic roll of the dice with global security.

“He wants to value what’s visible and doesn’t care about what’s invisible, even if it actually does something,” Dan Drezner, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, says of Trump. “This is thinking that I’m going to add an addition to my house, and I’m going to do so by not paying my home insurance.”

Trump’s vision for the world

The Trump budget document is what’s called a “skinny budget” — basically an outline of the full budget that doesn’t contain all the specifics of the fuller one that will be released in May. But the details it does contain make it easy to discern the thinking that went into them.

Take, for example, the document’s description of the Pentagon spending hike:

This increase alone exceeds the entire defense budget of most countries, and would be one of the largest one-year DOD increases in American history. It is exceeded only by the peak increases of the Reagan Administration and a few of the largest defense increases during the World Wars and the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (in constant dollars, based on GDP chained price index).

Think about those historical parallels. The Trump administration is arguing the United States needs to ramp up its military spending in a fashion previously only seen during wars and arms races. And the money isn’t going to fund more fighting in Afghanistan or Syria — in fact, the Trump budget slightly cuts the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operation fund (OCO), which covers these things (though the OCO is almost certainly going to be increased in a supplemental budget bill, especially if the Trump administration follows through on a Pentagon plan to send 1,000 troops to Syria).

The goal, instead, appears to just make the US military larger. It funds more personnel in every service branch, though it’s not clear by how much, and more investments in technologically advanced weapons platforms whose actual utility in America’a current or likely future conflicts is far from clear.

For example, the budget funds more purchases of F-35s, an advanced but tremendously expensive fighter the president had previously threatened to cut funding for entirely. The plane, as my colleague Sam Ellis explains, is a bit of a boondoggle — the Air Force loves its high-tech capabilities, but the plane is far too expensive relative to its utility.

This kind of expensive purchase, in Trump’s eye, is supposed to “deter war” rather than wage it — an approach it terms “peace through strength.” This is of a piece with traditional American foreign policy thinking, which sees US military strength as a bulwark against aggression from major powers like Russia and China as well as mercurial ones like North Korea.

Indeed, the Obama administration had budgeted for a defense increase in FY2018 as well: Trump’s plan only amounts to $18 billion on top of what the prior administration had wanted.

Where it breaks with the standard approach is by cutting other tools designed to prevent conflict — namely, diplomatic and humanitarian assistance — pretty dramatically. The US contribution to UN peacekeeping operations, a program which statistical research finds to be surprisingly effective at preventing future outbreaks of war, goes down by a minimum of 11 percent.

More broadly, the budget seems to treat a lot of traditional areas of diplomatic concern as basically expendable. Development and climate change programs are the hardest hit: The Global Climate Change Initiative, an aid program that helps poor countries develop in a way that contributes less to climate change, is eliminated entirely, and funding for the World Bank and similar development banks is cut by $650 million over three years.

The programs specifically listed in the budget outline, however, are not nearly large enough to make up the full amount of cuts (especially since it explicitly declares aid to Israel, totaling $3.1 billion, as off limits). That means when the full budget comes out, there will have to be dramatic cuts to other State Department programs and staff.

“President Trump's budget cuts for the State Department + USAID will weaken America + cripple the Foreign Service. Shocking,” R. Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard who served as assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration, tweeted.

The justification in the budget for all of this is revealing:

The Budget for the Department of State and USAID diplomatic and development activities is being refocused on priority strategic objectives and renewed attention is being placed on the appropriate U.S. share of international spending. In addition, the Budget seeks to reduce or end direct funding for international organizations whose missions do not substantially advance US foreign policy interests, are duplicative, or are not well-managed.

The Trump administration believe that a large chunk — about 29 percent — of what the State Department does fails to advance core “US foreign policy interests.” This is code for refocusing US foreign policy away from programs designed to benefit people in foreign countries, like foreign aid and peacekeeping. “America First” means “America Only.”

This is a radical break from the past

Since the launch of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US defense and foreign policy establishments have seen zero tension between high levels of Pentagon and State Department funding. In fact, they’ve seen them as complementary: During the early Obama administration, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Congress together to request a budget increase for State.

The logic here was most pithily expressed by Trump’s secretary of defense, Jim Mattis. In 2013, when Mattis was the commander of US Central Command, Sen. Roger Wicker asked him if he thought foreign aid was “helpful to us in providing national defense for our country.” His reply was unequivocal: The State Department’s work helps prevent conflict.

“If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately,” Mattis said. “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.”

The idea here is that spending on diplomacy and even foreign aid buys America influence. A larger and better-trained diplomatic corps helps America strike better deals and maintain strong alliances. Foreign military financing helps produce stronger partners in the fight against groups like ISIS. Even humanitarian aid addresses some drivers of conflict, like economic insecurity, and buys leverage with local political leaders. This contribution might not be obvious to Trump, who doesn’t have a deep background in foreign policy, but the consensus among experts is that it’s real.

“The idea that you need diplomats seems crazy — right up until you need diplomats,” Drezner says.

Mattis-type arguments have formed a core part of America’s global strategy for decades. The 1948 Marshall Plan, the most famous foreign aid program in history, was designed to build up economically devastated postwar Europe as a means of preventing the spread of communism. Global institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank were set up, mostly by the US, both to maximize American diplomatic influence and to address global problems before they escalate to war.

This notion has gone mostly unquestioned by presidents from both parties. But Trump’s budget suggests that he thinks it’s mostly nonsense. The animating theory is that US military might is, by in large, the key force behind US stability. It holds that traditional US commitments to diplomacy and foreign engagement are overblown, and that a bare-bones approach is all that’s needed to make sure the military can do its job.

One might question this on purely moral grounds. Even if the bipartisan foreign policy consensus is wrong about diplomacy’s role in security, you might think that the administration would want to maintain foreign aid spending just because a lot of very poor people depend on it for food and medicine.

That’s where the “America First” title of the document becomes revealing. This budget makes achingly clear that the Trump administration does not care very much how its cuts affect people in the developing world. The sole lens through which things are viewed are whether they advance American foreign policy interests — a point that aid organizations have been hammering home in the wake of the budget outline’s release.

“This budget is a narrow-minded and small-hearted reimagining of America’s role in the world,” Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, said in a statement.

This is very, very unlikely to pass Congress

When details of the budget started to leak a few weeks ago, the cuts to the State Department were reported to be even steeper — 37 percent, the Wall Street Journal reported in late February. The Journal’s scoop was greeted with outrage from key congressional Republicans, who ultimately have the power to block Trump’s cuts.

“It’s dead on arrival, it’s not going to happen, it would be a disaster,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told the Washington Post when asked about the proposed cuts. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the State cuts “probably” couldn’t pass the Senate, and that he himself was “not in favor” of them. Rep. Ed Royce, chair of House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement emailed to press that he was “very concerned by reports of deep cuts” to State.

This isn’t surprising. A large percentage of congressional Republicans, particularly in the party’s leadership, basically accept the traditional, bipartisan approach to foreign policy. They agree with Mattis that sufficient levels of State funding are vital to preserving American and global security, and thus don’t want to see them slashed.

Though many of the vital members of Congress have been silent on the new budget, it’d be surprising if their position has changed. The cut to State in the budget proposal is slightly smaller than what was bandied about earlier, but still huge.

“I think it is safe to say that this budget proposal is highly unlikely to pass in its current form,” Todd Harrison, an expert on the budget at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells me. “Both Republicans and Democrats are likely to oppose some of the cuts on the non-defense side of the budget, especially cuts to the State Department, USAID, and foreign military financing.”

The defense increase, somewhat ironically, actually makes the State cuts more politically vulnerable. Increasing the defense budget requires repealing the caps set by the Budget Control Act of 2011, better known as sequestration. This cannot be done without 60 votes in the Senate — where there are currently only 52 Republicans. This, according to Harrison, “gives Democrats political leverage to stop the cuts on the non-defense side of the budget.”

Trump, then, might not only need to win over hostile Republicans to enact his foreign policy vision. He could require support from Democrats who have been, so far, basically united in opposition to his agenda.

Making radical revisions to US foreign policy is very, very hard. The president may have virtually unchecked authority over specific foreign policy decisions, like whether to raid a suspected terrorist cell in Yemen or withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement. But when it comes to radically remaking the foundations of American foreign policy — the programs that determine how US military and diplomatic engagement with the world works — Congress’s power of the purse puts a tremendous check on Trump’s power.

“The new administration will quickly learn that getting a budget passed requires a careful negotiation with Congress and quite a bit of compromise,” Harrison says. “If they dig in their heels on any of these issues, then we could be headed for a government shutdown in the fall.”

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Vox / Zack Beauchamp / March 16, 2017