Seriously but not literally

Donald Trump’s first budget proposal is like his tweets: intentionally exaggerated to attract attention. There is no way this budget will pass Congress, where it gores as many Republicans as it does Democrats. The boost in Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs–three of the more amply funded and least efficient US government agencies–aims to please those terrified of the threat from what Trump wants to call violent Islamic extremism, which kills fewer Americans than lightening strikes.

Trump is also preparing for the negotiation with Congress by anchoring his budget on the extreme right, knowing the outcome will be somewhere in the middle. This is classic Trump negotiating behavior, and has potential to gain him support from the Tea Party Republicans. They are none too happy with Ryancare, which amends but does not repeal or replace Obamacare, no matter how often Republicans repeat that phrase.

At the State Department, a 29% cut in a single year will pretty much devastate normal diplomacy, even if the Secretary of State will never find his wings clipped. State has a lot of fixed costs in embassies where the heat, air conditioning, and guard forces need to be fully funded. It also has salaries that need to be paid, as well as routine allowances, moving costs, tuition for kids whose parents are stationed abroad, and the costs of services to other US government agencies resident in our embassies.

I had 36 of those when I was Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge’ d’Affaires in Rome. Ninety per cent of the personnel there were either from other agencies or servicing them, including a large contingent from the Defense Department. They would scream loudly if their services were cut by 29%, never mind the 50% or more that is likely because of the fixed costs.

Yesterday in Japan Secretary Tillerson justified the State Department cuts this way:

…as time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the US will be directly engaged in. And second, that as we become more effective in our aid programs, that we will also be attracting resources from other countries, allies, and other sources as well to contribute in our development aid and our disaster assistance.

This is a ridiculous way to justify a first-year cut, especially as Trump has just deployed another 1000 troops to Syria and Tillerson himself is threatening war against North Korea. We face at least another decade of war and post-war transition in the Middle East (not only Syria but also Yemen, Iraq, and Libya). We can expect South Korea to handle most of the post-war requirements on the Korean Peninsula, but the notion that no burdens will fall to the US is not credible. Besides, other countries follow those who lead, not those who cut back.

In one sense, we shouldn’t worry too much: it isn’t all going to happen. Congress won’t let Meals on Wheels and other social welfare programs die, though it may well allow the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the United States Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars to go under or get starvation budgets. State and USAID should do better than that, as they have stronger constituencies in Congress.

But even if State gets back much of its money, our diplomatic corps and foreign assistance workers will suffer demoralization. They already weren’t in high spirits during the last of the Obama years, as the President let Syria go to hell, the pivot to the Asia Pacific faltered, and whole continents were ignored (especially Africa and Latin America). For good reasons, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development believe they are in the front lines of defending American interests globally: they issue visas, try to get foreign governments on board with whatever the President wants, and ensure that America participates in efforts to reduce poverty and discourage extremism worldwide.

Besides the cuts to State and AID, many domestic cuts will affect America’s role in the world. The 31% cut to EPA is intended in part to hamstring its efforts on global warming. The 6% cut at the Department of Energy will likely have that impact too. The Treasury cut (4%) apparently includes its important foreign assistance, which is vital to helping other countries set up Finance Ministries that can conduct serious growth-promoting macroeconomic policies and cooperate with the US in law enforcement, including economic sanctions.

The net effect is this: even if corrected in Congress, the Trump Administration budget announced yesterday will have a devastating impact on America’s influence in the world, over and above the disrespect in which the President himself is held in many countries. It should be taken seriously but not literally. America is not going to be great again on the global stage under this administration.

 

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