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American diplomacy in crisis under Trump

Image credit: Jim Mattis (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Last month, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to defend the Trump administration’s plan to cut the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development’s combined budget in FY2018 by 28%—a cut of nearly US$15 billion. The administration has claimed the cuts are intended to offset a US$54 billion increase in military spending. When Senators both Republican and Democratic parties questioned how these dramatic cuts could do anything but harm US interests abroad, Tillerson responded: ‘Our budget will never determine our ability to be effective. Our people will’.

This of course is nonsense. As my high school music teacher advised me before my final written exam, ‘more is more’. It’s fantasy to expect efficiency improvements to overcome such a massive budget cut over a presidential term, let alone a single year. Identifying and taking advantage of opportunities for large-scale efficiency improvements requires strategic planning by a team of experienced and empowered policymakers; this isn’t possible while Tillerson drags his feet on filling vacant positions in the State Department. Of 120 political jobs in the State Department, only nine have been filled. (Tillerson blames paperwork for the delay, as if no other administration faced that challenge.) The New York Times reports that most senior positions will remain vacant ‘until well into 2018’.

Moreover, under Trump and Tillerson, the State Department’s ability to retain skilled people is under threat. Voice of America reports that the budget cuts could see 2,300 people lose their jobs at the State Department. Trump is also alienating many senior public servants. David H. Rank, the acting US ambassador to China, resigned last month in protest at the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Tillerson says that the proposed budget reflects a renewed emphasis on security. This is utterly misguided. In February this year, 121 retired three- and four-star flag and general US military officers signed a letter arguing that strengthened diplomacy and development assistance are critical to their country’s national security. Ergo, slashing the budget for diplomacy and aid will cause great harm to international—and indeed US—security.

Few modern security threats can be adequately addressed through hard power alone. Poverty, for instance, is a leading cause of civil conflict. Without humanitarian assistance, the famines affecting East Africa and Yemen will foster conditions where threats to international security can more easily emerge. As Colin Powell has argued, it is far better to address those issues at their source and avoid any future need to employ military force.

Or take the threat posed by infectious diseases like Ebola. Nigeria quickly contained the Ebola outbreak in 2014 simply by implementing public health practices considered standard in the West. In nearby Liberia, a country with just 50 licensed doctors, Ebola spread rapidly and killed thousands. Aid focused on improving developing countries’ health systems can thus produce security benefits for donor countries. Donald Trump, who in 2014 tweeted, ‘the US cannot allow EBOLA infected people back’, should well consider this.

It’s sadly unsurprising that James Hodgkinson, who in June shot several people at a congressional baseball team practice, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, had a history of violence against women. Research shows that countries with high gender inequality and rates of domestic abuse are more likely to experience violent conflict. Yet the Trump administration, even before the announced budget cuts, decided to reinstate the Global Gag Rule, which bans US funding to overseas groups that perform or promote abortion services. This will not only harm women within those countries, but also worsen international security risks.

Finally, addressing high level security threats such as the North Korean nuclear crisis will require consistent and skilled diplomacy—particularly with Chinese counterparts. Without the advice of experienced and knowledgeable diplomats, the novice administration is at far greater risk of escalating tensions or even simply missing opportunities for enhanced cooperation. That said, as President Trump and Secretary Tillerson’s conflicting messages on Qatar have shown recently, sometimes good advice isn’t enough.

On the bright side, the US Senators who’ve questioned Secretary Tillerson’s proposal agree that Congress would not approve such an extreme and ill-considered budget request. But with a secretary of state whose aversion to the media and diplomatic glad-handing is exceeded only by his president’s ignorance of foreign affairs, it’s a dark time for American diplomacy.

Cameron Steer is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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