"There's no question this is a hard-power budget," budget director Mick Mulvaney said of President Trump’s proposal to slash spending on diplomacy while increasing military spending. "It is not a soft-power budget . . . The president very clearly wants to send a message to our allies and our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration. So you've seen money move from soft-power programs, such as foreign aid, into hard-power programs."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson defended the proposed 29 percent cut in his budget with the argument that “as time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the U.S. will be directly engaged in."
The idea seems to be that U.S. "hard power"—as articulated by Trump and bolstered by a $54 billion increase in military spending—will deter America’s enemies and result in fewer wars. So the United States will need less international involvement and fewer diplomats.
It's a far-fetched argument, if not entirely bogus.
After all, Trump and Tillerson are not talking about withdrawing or winding down U.S. involvement in any of our five ongoing military conflicts (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia). In fact, early reports indicate that Defense Secretary James Mattis wants to put U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, which President Obama refused to do.
Nor is Trump talking about cutting back on the U.S Special Operations Command, which in 2015 was operating in a record 135 countries around the world, according to military analyst Nick Turse.
The deeper agenda
Trump’s budget cuts are not a harbinger of pacification, but an attack on the profession of diplomacy and the practice of international cooperation. They reflect White House adviser Steve Bannon's agenda of dismantling America’s alliances built since the end of the Cold War.
The goal is to replace the United Nations, the European Union, NATO and other multinational organizations with a more transactional diplomacy. Trump and Bannon prefer bilateral deals with partners that are willing to take on the “civilizational struggle” against “radical Islamic terrorism.” The template is gendered: abandon the soft, feminized European Union and embrace the hard, manly Putin.
But before Trump and Bannon can wage that war they need to disarm the forces that might impede them. Bannon’s Strategic Initiatives Group has targeted European governments that support the European Union. The State Department and United Nations are targeted for the same reason.
The U.N. will bear the brunt of the cuts, reports Colum Lynch in Foreign Policy:
State Department staffers have been instructed to seek cuts in excess of 50 percent in U.S. funding for U.N. programs, signaling an unprecedented retreat by President Donald Trump’s administration from international operations that keep the peace, provide vaccines for children, monitor rogue nuclear weapons programs, and promote peace talks from Syria to Yemen, according to three sources.
U.N. officials expect the United States to seek to eliminate funding for the U.N. Population Fund, which receives about $35 million a year from the U.S. for family planning programs, and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, according to Lynch.
Sub-Saharan Africa is also likely to suffer.
“We have U.N. warnings of famine in four countries,” said Bathsheba Crocker, who served in the State Department as assistant secretary of state for International Organization Affairs, referring to food crises in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. “It is only the U.N. agencies that have the scale and ability to get in and address these challenges.”
Enemies of expertise
Another target: well-informed U.S. diplomats.
The Secretary of State typically has two deputies; Tillerson hasn’t filled either position. There are six open undersecretary slots and 22 unfilled assistant secretary positions. These jobs are typically filled by Foreign Service officers with regional experience, language skills and foreign connections.
These posts will probably remain unfilled. So when there’s an Ebola outbreak in Africa, or a tsunami in South Asia, or a climate change crisis in the Arctic, or a Zika epidemic in Latin America, or famine in Sudan, the U.S. government will be less able to provide medical expertise, disaster relief, scientific insight, medical supplies, or food. That’s the point: to prevent the exercise of so-called "soft-power."
Thomas Countryman, a former senior State Department official who played a leading role in the Iran nuclear deal, told Public Radio International, "There’s a deliberate policy on the part of the White House to let the State Department and other agencies atrophy to ensure that there remains a vacuum in the analytical and leadership capabilities of State and other agencies."
Those jobs are held by reality-based diplomats. Whatever their politics, they might insist that U.S. policymakers consider whether another land war in the Middle East is a good idea; whether demonizing Muslims makes Americans safer; whether hostility to Cuba makes sense; and whether climate change is real.
Trump and Bannon know the best way—the only way—they can win such debates is not to have them. They want a vacuum in which Trump will be free to escalate the struggle against “radical Islamic terrorism.” The State Department budget cuts are not intended as a prelude to peace as Tillerson suggested, but as preparation for the "clash of civilizations" Bannon yearns for.