The Trump administration is proposing sharp cuts to the budget for international diplomacy and aid in 2019, in line with a determination to boost spending on the military and cut it elsewhere.
Administration officials said the $39.3 billion request to Congress for the State Department and the US Agency for International Development was $1.5 billion higher than their initial request of $37.8 billion, which was included in the White House’s budget that was released Monday.
The addition was the result of a bipartisan budget deal reached Friday and the extra funds will go toward humanitarian aid, global health programs and the UN, officials told CNN later on Monday afternoon.
With the overall budget request, “the administration will protect Americans at home and overseas by countering the gravest threats to US national security,” said Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan. The agency will also “build the strength and intensity of international effort to prevent North Korea, Iran and other actors from unlawfully acquiring weapons of mass destruction in their means of delivery,” he said.
But the proposed 29% cut from 2017 funding levels – even as crises escalate in Asia and the Middle East and many key State Department positions remain unfilled – drew sharp protests from lawmakers, retired military leaders and development advocates, who argued that it would undermine US security and leadership.
‘A responsible commitment of resources’
Anticipating the cuts, 151 retired three- and four-star generals wrote congressional leaders from both parties on Friday urging them to “ensure a responsible commitment of resources” that keeps pace with the growing threats the US faces. “We must not undercut our nation’s ability to lead around the world in such turbulent times,” the generals wrote.
They highlighted the role that aid and diplomacy play in averting crises that eventually need a military response, pointing to the nearly 30 million people at risk of starvation in four countries; the increasing number displaced by instability and conflict in Yemen, Somalia, Myanmar and Venezuela; and the challenge of holding territory after the defeat of ISIS.
“Today’s crises do not have military solutions alone, yet America’s essential civilian national security agencies – the State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies – faced a significant cut last year,” the generals wrote.
“We call on you to ensure our nation also has the civilian resources necessary to protect our national security, compete against our adversaries, and create opportunities around the world,” the generals said.
The White House said the budget for diplomacy and development would allow the US “to compete for influence against those who do not share America’s values or interests, catalyze conditions to help aspiring partners achieve mutually beneficial economic and security goals, and respond to the emerging era of great power competition across political, economic and information domains.”
Last year, Congress largely ignored the administration’s request for cuts, with many lawmakers voicing concerns similar to the generals’.
Tom Hart, North America executive director for The ONE Campaign, a policy group dedicated to fighting poverty and preventable disease, issued a one-sentence statement saying the administration’s budget numbers were “not a serious proposal and Congress should do as it did last year: ignore it.”
That seems likely, according to Rep. Ed Royce, the California Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “A strong, bipartisan coalition in Congress has already acted once to stop deep cuts to the State Department and Agency for International Development that would have undermined our national security. This year, we will act again,” he said in a statement.
“As I’ve said, diplomacy helps keep America strong and our troops out of combat. Our country faces urgent threats from North Korea, Iran and terrorists around the world,” Royce continued. “Programs that are vital to our national interests should be prioritized.”
In contrast, the administration has requested $686 billion for the Defense Department, an $80 billion or 13% increase from the 2017 enacted level. This includes $597 billion for the base budget, and $89 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations, which are used for dealing with crises such as the situation in Syria and Iraq.
The administration said the fiscal year 2019 budget request for the State Department and Agency for International Development is meant to be focused on four areas: protecting security in the US and abroad, “renewing America’s competitive advantage for sustained economic growth and job creation,” promoting American leadership and providing accountability to taxpayers.
The FY 2019 budget will help the US “strengthen and intensify international efforts to prevent North Korea, Iran and other actors from unlawfully acquiring weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery,” Tillerson wrote in the budget request.
Tillerson also stressed the importance of border protection and a commitment to upholding the 10-year memorandum of understanding that the Obama administration signed with Israel – the largest in US history. Sullivan said Israel would get a $200 million increase in 2019 aid over last year for a total of $3.3 billion, reflecting a newly signed 10-year memorandum.
The sharply curtailed budget comes at a time when State Department morale has been deeply damaged by what many in the building see as the administration’s disrespect for diplomacy and Tillerson’s “restructuring” program. Many noted that Tillerson seemed to have steep cuts built in before he had even had a chance to take the department’s measure.
The forced and voluntary departures of many senior and deeply experienced foreign service officers, and the apparent punishing of others by assigning them to trivial clerical work, has left many in the agency shaken and alienated.
“Many senior leadership positions remain unfilled, undercutting America’s global influence,” the generals noted of the departures in their letter. “We call on you to ensure our nation also has the civilian resources necessary to protect our national security, compete against our adversaries, and create opportunities around the world.”
A recent study by Government Executive, reported on by the Atlantic, found that the number of foreign service officers fell by 12% over the first eight months of the Trump administration, while the civilian workforce shrunk 6%.
The generals also quoted Defense Secretary James Mattis saying that, “America’s got two fundamental powers, the power of intimidation and the power of inspiration.”
But the budget is coming from a president who has publicly derided the idea of diplomacy, telling Tillerson he was “wasting his time” on efforts to use diplomacy to force North Korea to the table.
And while the generals stressed the value of aid to longer term US national security goals or interests, administration officials have repeatedly and overtly tied aid to political aims.
President Donald Trump asked Congress in his State of the Union speech last month to make sure aid goes only to America’s “friends,” while Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, made clear to nations that voted to condemn US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital that she would be “taking names” and there would be consequences.
This article has been updated to reflect the State Department’s explanation of why the White House and State Department initially issued different figures for the 2019 budget request.