Posted: 4:39 am ET
Reporting for the Washington Post in 1996, Thomas Lippman wrote that “The total budget for civilian international programs, the so-called 150 account, started to decline in the mid-1980s. It leveled off during the Bush administration, then resumed a downward slide in President Clinton’s first year.” He noted that “the relentless budget pressure that began in the mid-1980s accelerated with the Clinton administration’s deficit-reduction plan, forcing the closing of consulates, aid missions, libraries, cultural centers and even a few entire embassies, from Italy to Indonesia, from Antigua to Thailand” (see U.S. Diplomacy’s Presence Shrinking).
Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States defeating incumbent George H. W. Bush in 1992. Warren M. Christopher was nominated Secretary of State by then President-elect Clinton in December 1992. Christopher was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on January 20, 1993, and sworn in the next day. Two months into the new administration, Secretary Christopher made his first official congressional appearance as Secretary of State before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and Judiciary House Appropriations Committee to talk about redirecting American foreign policy, refocusing the aid budgets, and reforming institutions.
Secretary Christopher at that time said that “American foreign policy in the years ahead will be grounded in what President Clinton has called the three “pillars” of our national interest: first, revitalizing our economy; second, updating our security forces for a new era; and, third, protecting democracy as the best means to protect our own national security while expanding the reach of freedom, human rights, prosperity, and peace.” He talked about Saddam Hussein, “If the lawlessness of [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein has taught us any single lesson, it is that weapons of mass destruction, especially when combined with missile technology, can transform a petty tyrant into a threat to world peace and stability.” Secretary Christopher talked about the State Department budget, “It will be a tough budget for tough times. It will be a flexible budget that seeks austerity, not as a hardship to be endured but as a challenge to innovate and do our job better. Above all, we hope that this budget will mark a transitional step to a truly focused budget that sets priorities and puts resources behind them.”
Oh, brother where are ya?
In February 1993, Secretary Christopher also sent a message to State Department employees on the Implementation Directive on Reorganization. Two months into the Trump Administration, and days after the OMB released Trump’s “skinny budget” we have yet to hear from Secretary Tillerson on where the State Department go from here. We know that he supports the budget cuts for his department, and he has made no public effort of defending the funding and programs for his agency but the top diplomat of the United States still has not articulated the foreign policy priorities of this administration. If Secretary Tillerson has sent a message to his troops in Foggy Bottom, we have yet to hear about it or its contents.
The proposed FY18 budget slashes the international affairs budget by 28% or 36% with Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) funding factored in. If passed by Congress, what happens to That Three-Legged Stool of American Foreign Policy? As diplomacy and development will be hobbled by cuts, are we going to see an exponential growth in private contractors in support of DOD, diplomacy and development? Or are we going to just see staffing gaps and reduced diplomatic footprints from Algeria to Zimbabwe?
In Tillerson’s recent interview with IJR, he said about the State Department budget that “One can say it’s not going to happen in one year, and it’s not.”
He’s right. The cuts may happen this year, and next year, and every fiscal year thereafter. It sounds to us like an “American First” foreign policy does not see much use for diplomacy. So we expect that the State Department budget will continue to be targeted during the entire Trump term. But if history is any indication, the decisions made today will have repercussions for our country down the road. Back in 1993, Secretary Christopher said, “when the time eventually comes to restore diplomatic relations with Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Libya, the money and personnel for those posts probably will have to come out of existing resources, officials said, thus increasing the pressure to close marginal posts elsewhere.” In 1996, the then Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) director John D. Holum warned that the agency “no longer has a U.S. technical expert assigned to the U.N. weapons inspection team in Iraq.”
With the exception of Iran, we are back in Iraq, and Somalia, and we know what happened in Libya. We don’t grow diplomats overnight. Expertise and diplomatic muscle grow with time, with every assignment, with every challenge. What happens when the next crisis erupts in Asia? Can we just pluck diplomats and development experts from the OPM growth chamber? Or are we going to have a civilian surge once more with diplomats lacking experience and language skills thrown into a pit and then expected to do an effective job?
Remember, do you remember?
We should note that the Democrats had control of the House and the Senate after the 1992 elections but the midterm elections in 1994 resulted in a net gain of 54 seats in the House of Representatives for the GOP, and a pickup of eight seats in the Senate. That was the Gingrich Revolution. By the way, R.C. Hammond who previously served as press secretary to Newt Gingrich (a vocal Trump ally) is now a communications adviser for Secretary Tillerson.
WaPo reported that between 1993-1996 “the State Department has cut more than 2,000 employees and shuttered consulates in 26 foreign cities. The Agency for International Development (AID), which runs foreign aid programs, has been hit especially hard by the Republican-controlled Congress and has closed 23 missions overseas.”
In 1995, according to NYT: The U.S. ambassadors to Italy, France, Britain, Spain, the E.U., Germany, Russia and NATO reportedly got together and sent a secret cable to Secretary Christopher, signed by all of them, telling him that the “delivery system” of U.S. foreign policy was being destroyed by budget cuts. They pleaded with him to mobilize those constituencies in the U.S. that value the work of embassies, and volunteered to come to Washington to testify before Congress in their defense. The ambassadors got a polite note back from Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott, telling them he understood their concerns but that there was a new mood in Congress. There was no invitation to testify.
The State Department at that time reportedly also promoted the concept of “diplomatic readiness,” similar to military readiness, “in hopes of persuading Congress to divert some money from the defense budget into diplomacy and foreign aid — activities that, in the diplomats’ view, save money over time by reducing the need for military actions.”
More than 100 businesses, trade associations, law firms and volunteer groups did organize a “Campaign to Preserve U.S. Global Leadership” without much success.
And this despite the fact that a 1994 GAO study indicates that only 38 percent of the U.S. government personnel in embassies work for the State Department, while 36 percent work for the Pentagon, 5 percent for Justice and 3 percent for Transportation. The other 18 percent includes representatives of the Treasury, Agriculture and Commerce departments. We don’t know what is the current breakdown of federal agencies operating overseas under the State Department umbrella but if the Trump Administration starts turning off the lights in Africa, or Asia for instance, that could also prove problematic for the Pentagon.
What a 27% budget cut looked like for the international affairs budget?
By Fall 1995, the State Department released a Q&A on the International Affairs Budget–A Sound Investment in Global Leadership. It includes the following:
Q. Since most Americans favor reducing government spending to balance the federal budget, have the State Department and other foreign affairs agencies done anything to cut costs?
A. Yes, the Administration has done a great deal to cut costs. We have already:
— Cut the foreign assistance budget request by 20%;
–Trimmed more than 1,100 jobs at the State Department and 600 jobs at the U.S. Information Agency (USIA);
–Identified, for elimination by 1997, about 2,000 jobs at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID);
–Decreased administrative and overhead costs by $100 million; and
–Closed, or scheduled for closing, 36 diplomatic or consular posts, 10 USIA posts, and 28 USAID missions abroad.
OVERSEAS POSTS CLOSED, 1993-96 Consulates, consulates general and State Department branch offices: Algeria Austria Australia Brazil Colombia Egypt France Germany Indonesia Italy (2) Kenya Martinique Mexico Nigeria Philippines Poland Somalia Spain Switzerland (2) Turkey Thailand (2) Venezuela Zaire Embassies Antigua and Barbuda Comoros Equatorial Guinea Seychelles Solomon Islands. AID missions Afghanistan Argentina Belize Botswana Burkina Faso Cameroon Cape Verde Caribbean region Chad Chile Costa Rica Estonia Ivory Coast Lesotho Oman Pakistan South Pacific Switzerland Thailand Togo Tunisia Uruguay Zaire (via)
According to WaPo in 1996, USAID’s overall work force “has been reduced from 11,500 to 8,700 and is heading down to 8,000. The number of full “sustainable development missions” — on-site teams promoting long-term diversified economic development — declined from 70 at the start of the administration to 30.”
That’s what a 27% budget cut inflected on the international affairs budget did in the 90’s.
By 1999, with the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998, the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the United States Information Agency (USIA) were both abolished and folded into the State Department.
Who ya gonna call?
Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell was recently quoted saying, “America being a force is a lot more than building up the Defense Department. Diplomacy is important, extremely important, and I don’t think these reductions at the State Department are appropriate.”
According to the Washington Examiner, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn apparently signaled that President Trump’s initial proposed budget “won’t dictate how the State Department gets funded.” “The president’s budget goes in the waste basket as soon as it gets here,” he said.
We should note that in the 1990s, both houses of Congress (GOP) and a White House under a Democrat worked together to slashed the State Department budget. It was not a question of how much to cut, but where to cut. This time around, we have a Republican Congress and a Republican White House, but while the WH is gunning for these cuts, the Senate particularly, appears not to be quite on board with the slash and burn cuts. Still, we are reminded what former Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament Stephen J. Ledogar (1990-1997) noted in his oral history (PDF) — that “Not very many people will admit this, but the administration bowing to Congress on those consolidations was part of the price that was paid by the Clinton administration to Jesse Helms in exchange for him agreeing to let the Chemical Weapons Convention go through the Senate.”
So … while there are differences in the circumstances during the budget cuts in the 1990’s and the proposed budget cuts in the current and FY18 fiscal years, we are mindful how things can change with the right carrots.