Before he became defense secretary, Gen. Jim Mattis once pleaded with Congress to invest more in State Department diplomacy.
“If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition,” he explained. Alas, President Donald Trump took him literally but not seriously.
The administration plans a $54 billion increase in military spending, financed in part by a 37 percent cut in the budgets of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
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That reflects a misunderstanding about the world – that security is assured only when we’re blowing things up. It’s sometimes true that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, as Chairman Mao said, but it also emerges from diplomacy, foreign aid and carefully cultivated goodwill.
Military power is especially limited when threats come from new directions. More than four times as many Americans now die each year from opioids as have died in the Iraq and Afghan wars combined, but warships can’t defeat drug traffickers. To beat traffickers, we need diplomacy and the goodwill of countries like Mexico and Afghanistan.
And we certainly can’t bomb Ebola or climate change.
Even before Trump’s election, we underfunded diplomacy and aid. Consider that the New York City police alone employ more than twice as many uniformed officers as the State Department has Foreign Service officers.
The military is one of the strongest advocates for nonmilitary investments – because generals know that they need diplomacy and aid to buttress their hard power. That’s why 120 generals and admirals recently signed a letter pleading with Congress to fund the State Department and foreign aid.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates used to lament that the military had more musicians in its marching bands than the State Department had diplomats. As I do the numbers, that statement is no longer true, but it does reflect the continuing reality that Congress feeds the Pentagon while starving the State Department.
“Two brigades in the armed forces equal our entire diplomatic corps,” noted Nicholas Burns, a former senior diplomat who now teaches at Harvard. Burns said that he agrees with Trump that the military should get more funding but emphasized that slashing diplomacy and foreign aid will make it more difficult to address crucial transnational challenges, from drugs to crime to immigration.
“If you so dramatically underfund the State Department, you defeat the Trump agenda,” he said.
One of the biggest security threats the world faced in recent years was Ebola – and the next pandemic may be much worse – and the only effective response was to work with other countries to tackle the problems collectively.
That’s also true of terrorism. The RAND Corp. examined how 648 terrorist groups ended between 1968 and 2006. Most were absorbed by the political process or defeated by police work; only 7 percent were crushed by military force.
On balance, terrorists are probably less threatened by drones overhead than by girls with books. That’s why extremists shot Malala, threw acid in the faces of Afghan schoolgirls and kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. Terrorists understand what most threatens them, but I’m not sure we do.
The U.S. just lost a Navy SEAL in Yemen, and it’s useful to compare Yemen with its neighbor Oman. Until 1970, Oman was more backward than Yemen, for Oman banned radio as the work of the devil, locked the gates to the capital at night and offered no education for girls and almost none for boys. Then a new sultan took over and focused on education, of girls as well as boys, and Oman is now a boring, peaceful place, while Yemen floundered – and is torn apart by terrorism and civil war.
One can’t help wondering: If U.S. aid programs had invested in education in Yemen, might we have reduced today’s terrorism and violence? One study found that a doubling of primary school enrollment in a poor country halves the risk of civil war.
Education is no panacea, but it is a bargain: For the cost of deploying one soldier abroad for a year, we can start about 40 schools.
I’m focusing on security interests here, but let’s also note that humanitarian aid is a matter of our values as well as of our interests. Do we really want to cut humanitarian aid just as hunger crises are spreading in Africa and the Middle East, threatening 20 million people with starvation?
Our security is advanced not just by being scary but also by winning friends. Trump will face a crisis – maybe with North Korea, maybe with China, maybe with some new pandemic – and he will need not just a robust military but also the cooperation of friendly nations.
Tanks can’t help when our president antagonizes Mexico or hangs up on the Australian prime minister. Or when immigration officials detain and humiliate to tears a beloved 70-year-old Australian children’s author on her 117th visit to America.
“In that moment, I loathed America,” Mem Fox, the author, wrote. That’s one way nations lose their soft power and undermine their own national security.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.