Secretary of State-designate Madeleine Albright charmed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at her confirmation hearings this week. But the real test of her influence will be in how persuasive her advocacy proves to be on a Congress that doesn't seem to know or care very much about the tasks and challenges facing American diplomacy in a world that still looks to this country for leadership. Among the most important of Albright's comments to the committee was her reminder that effective diplomacy cannot be conducted on the cheap.
Cheap and cheaper, though, is just what funding for international affairs has steadily become. In the last dozen years, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher recently pointed out, Congress has cut the foreign relations budget by an inflation-adjusted 51%. In President Clinton's first term alone, $2.5 billion was slashed. Among other results have been the closure of 30 embassies and consulates, sharply lowering Washington's ability to monitor developments in many sensitive areas. In addition, 25% of the U.S. Information Agency's overseas libraries have had to lock their doors for lack of funds. Those facilities provide the clearest picture of the United States that many foreigners are ever likely to see.
The foreign policy budget, as Albright reminded the committee, comes to about $18 billion, or just 1% of total federal spending. Included in it are funds for operating the State Department and its missions and providing aid to a shrinking number of countries. "That 1%," she commented, "may well determine 50% of the history that is written about the era." That does not strike us as an exaggeration. Diplomacy aims to advance and protect the many interests of Americans by peaceful means, whether helping businesses gain entry to new markets abroad or making life safer for travelers or providing skilled eyes and ears in sensitive posts abroad. Effective diplomacy is at least as important to national security as a strong military force, maybe even more important, since successful diplomacy can sometimes make recourse to military power unnecessary. It's time to reverse years of self-wounding spending cuts and begin funding foreign relations at a level the nation's place in the world requires.