[…] On Tuesday, the axe fell: The State Department and foreign operations budget was slashed by $8.5 billion — a pittance when compared to military spending, but one that could put a serious dent in the United States’ ability to positively influence events abroad.
Now, in the name of an illusory contribution to deficit reduction (when you’re talking about deficits in the trillions, $38 billion in savings is a drop in the bucket), those efforts have been set back. Polls consistently show a popular misconception that aid is a significant part of the U.S. federal budget, when in fact it amounts to less than 1 percent. Thus, congressional cuts to aid in the name of deficit reduction are an easy vote, but a cheap shot.
In 2007, Richard Armitage and I co-chaired a bipartisan Smart Power Commission of members of Congress, former ambassadors, retired military officers, and heads of non-profit organizations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. We concluded that America’s image and influence had declined in recent years and that the United States had to move from exporting fear to inspiring optimism and hope.
The Smart Power Commission was not alone in this conclusion. Even when he was in the George W. Bush administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called on Congress to commit more money and effort to soft-power tools including diplomacy, economic assistance, and communications because the military alone cannot defend America’s interests around the world.
The obstacles to integrating America’s soft- and hard-power tool kit have deep roots, and the Obama administration is only beginning to overcome them, by creating a second deputy at State, reinvigorating USAID, and working with the Office of Management and Budget. Increasing the size of the Foreign Service, for instance, would cost less than the price of one C-17 transport aircraft, yet there are no good ways to assess such a tradeoff in the current form of budgeting. Now, that progress may be halted.
Leadership in a global information age is less about being the king of the mountain issuing commands that cascade down a hierarchy than being the person in the center of a circle or network who attracts and persuades others to come help. Both the hard power of coercion and the soft power of attraction and persuasion are crucial to success in such situations. Americans need better to understand both these dimensions of smart power.
Nowhere is this more true than on Capitol Hill. While Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have spoken about the importance of soft power, they do not have to face the American electorate. As a friend in Congress once told me, “You are right about the importance of combining soft power with hard power, but I cannot talk about soft power and hope to get re-elected.” The defense budget affects almost all congressional constituencies in the United States; the budgets for State and USAID do not. The result is a foreign policy that rests on a defense giant and a number of pygmy departments. For example, when Gates and Clinton recently agreed to transfer an aid program from the Pentagon to the State Department, the program’s budget was cut in half. And now, Foggy Bottom faces cuts across the board.
Congress needs to be serious about deficit reduction, and it also needs to be serious about foreign policy. The events of the past week suggest it is serious about neither.
Read in full here.