President Trump’s first foray into the world of foreign affairs hinged on one issue: can he convey a sense of trustworthy personal and U.S. leadership? Rhetorically, he did fine but at home he proposed a budget that guts his ability to follow through. In Riyadh and at NATO, he proclaimed American leadership. In Washington, his budget declared unilateral diplomatic disarmament.
In Riyadh, the President danced with Kings and Princes and, siding with his hosts, denounced Iran and terrorism. He appealed to leaders of the Islamic world to join him in exorcising the “evil” of Islamic extremism and acknowledged the greatness of their civilization. In Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he pledged to bring about a peace deal supported by the whole Arab world. He promised the Pope he “won’t forget what you said” – whatever that implies for issues the Pope cares about like climate, peace in the Middle East, and refugees. And, at NATO, he urged Allies to raise their military spending to the target of 2% of GDP. With the G7 over the weekend, he is expected to try to convince them that the U.S. will continue to lead the world economy even if he doesn’t come around to their views on environment and trade.
And now … now comes the hard part:
- To stop terrorists, we need to organize multiple governments – many of whom don’t like each other– to trade information, monitor borders, stop illicit financing, block travel by suspicious individuals, support modernization, encourage moderate clerics and make sure our friends don’t flag in their vigilance after an initial flurry of effort.
- For the peace deal, we’ll need to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to the table and orchestrate a consistent chorus of godfathers and midwives through a massive, probably multi-year, persistent, powerful, political and diplomatic effort on multiple fronts using persuasion and, to put it crudely, payoffs.
- With the Pope, we’ll need to stay tight with Vatican diplomats around the world to make common cause where we can and talk through the issues where we don’t see eye to eye.
- To get to 2% in Allied countries, we’ll need to convince leaders, ministers, budget maestros, parliamentarians, influential journalists, and ordinary citizens to come up with the money for a more robust defense and make trade-offs by cutting cherished domestic or other expenses.
We’ll have to do all this on top of sustaining the daily work of our embassies and diplomats who open markets for U.S. manufactured and agricultural exports, who visit Americans in foreign jails, who lend money to destitute tourists, who decide who qualifies for an American visa, who stop ebola and zika from spreading, or who press the myriad of other issues that we as a nation care about.
Will the Pentagon take care of these tasks with their $54 billion increase? Will we bomb our Allies into more spending? Do we naively think all the foreigners will do what they promised the president on his trip? I rather doubt it.
So, it’s rather disconcerting that while the president was making all these commitments to foreign leaders, he was simultaneously gutting the foreign affairs budget back home. His new 2018 budget asks for a 32% cut in foreign affairs spending. Secretary Rex Tillerson speaks of making our diplomacy more efficient and effective. We all agree with improvements in efficiency and effectiveness. At the State Department and the Agency for International Development, Secretary Tillerson can certainly consolidate some bureaus and programs. He can cut the excessive number of special envoys, political appointees, and special programs from the last administration. He can focus and streamline foreign assistance and modernize the administrative processes.
All this would be welcomed by the people who carry out our diplomacy and assistance around the world. We can all achieve the same or more in less time. But, let’s not be naive: efficiency and effectiveness could save, maybe, 10% of the budget. But, 32%? Even before we delve into the gory details, we know: 32% carves meat and bone. 32% equals U.S. withdrawal from a world of rising powers.
Now, ironically, it will fall to the Congress to ensure that our foreign affairs agencies are armed with the robust staff, security, and assistance programs needed to carry out the President’s promises. My parents taught me not to make promises you can’t keep and to keep any promises you do make. Congress must now make sure that the United States lives up to our President’s promises.