TSG IntelBrief: An Undiplomatic Budget Proposal
March 17, 2017

An Undiplomatic Budget Proposal


Bottom Line Up Front:

• The Trump administration’s first partial budget proposal includes significant cuts to U.S. diplomatic and foreign aid efforts.

• While significant changes will be made to the budget before it is passed, the proposal represents a consistent reflection of the administration’s preference for unilateral approaches to multilateral challenges.

• Challenges such as North Korea, the ongoing dispute over the South China Sea, famine relief, and war reconstruction require a multi-layered soft-power approach that defies point-to-point solutions.

• As post-9/11 conflicts have demonstrated, U.S. military power alone is not sufficient to resolve today’s complex global challenges; the effective use of diplomacy and foreign aid is more needed than ever.


On March 16, the Trump administration submitted the rough draft of its budget proposal for 2018. As expected, the proposed budget calls for a large increase in military spending. The increase would be paid for by making significant cuts in many discretionary domestic programs, but also in the budget of the U.S. State Department and several foreign aid programs. Given the inextricable link between military spending and the subsequent need for significant diplomatic and aid-related spending, defense officials and policymakers have already questioned the wisdom of the imbalance. Furthermore, foreign aid programs that comprise miniscule percentages of the overall U.S. budget serve as force multipliers and soft-power peacekeepers in places where several million dollars of aid makes a real difference. While the value of such programs can be difficult to measure through standard metrics, the impact on the ground can be readily seen as conflict prevention and mitigation.

President Trump has remarked several times that the U.S. military ‘doesn’t win anymore,’ a frustration that reflects the realities of persistent conflicts in IraqAfghanistanYemen, and Syria. Indeed, these conflicts have actually gotten worse over time, despite the sustained presence of U.S. personnel. The challenges posed by these conflicts—as well as other threats such as North Korea—not only defy military solutions, but they also defy a unilateral solution of any kind. This reality runs against the Trump administration’s consistent message that it prefers unilateral ‘deals’ both in terms of trade as well as other geopolitical issues. 

The list of multilateral challenges and crises facing the U.S. is sobering. None of these issues can be addressed without extensive, lengthy, and often frustrating diplomatic and soft-power initiatives. The U.S. cannot hope to effect positive change on the issue of North Korea without engaging with China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and North Korea itself; it cannot hope to address Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its proxy war in eastern Ukraine without diplomatic talks with Russia, Ukraine, the EU, NATO, and the UN; it cannot hope to address the Syrian conflict without engaging in frustratingly tough diplomacy with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Russia, Lebanon, Jordan, the EU, the UN, and many more; and it cannot hope to address the very real threat of climate change without continued global diplomatic initiatives. 

Undoubtedly, there is room for every U.S. government agency and program to be made more efficient. Like every bureaucracy, the State Department is quite cumbersome and even redundant in certain missions. Yet compared to the massive sums of money spent on the U.S. military, the State Department budget—along with the budget of its aid programs and support to the UN and other organizations—is negligible, while its functions are essential to global stability and national security. Any money spent on avoiding war, reaffirming alliances, or addressing hunger, suffering, and injustice, is money well-spent for a country trying to reduce its future commitments overseas.


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