Want peace, love and understanding? Pony up


Ha ha: Tricked you. You probably thought I was going to tell you who really fathered Anna Nicole Smith’s baby, or share a new tidbit about the Duke lacrosse scandal, or maybe just pretend to be Joel Stein for a day.

Nope. Actually, I want to talk about the federal international affairs budget. (We columnists are a sneaky lot.) Let me tell you why you should care about the international affairs budget, a budget so unloved and obscure that you will search The Times archives in vain for a single reference to it -- other than this one.

OK. What exactly is the international affairs budget?

I’m glad you asked. The international affairs budget funds all U.S. foreign affairs spending. It funds the State Department, for instance, and the Peace Corps and exchange programs that allow U.S. students to study overseas. It funds U.S. contributions to peacekeeping efforts in Darfur, and it funds all our foreign assistance to developing countries: food aid, disaster relief, agricultural assistance, military training, democracy assistance, polio vaccinations, AIDS prevention and everything else you can think of.


“Hmm,” you’re probably thinking. “The international affairs budget may be unloved, but I’ll bet it’s huge, because that’s a lot of stuff to fund.” If you suspect that it’s a huge budget, you’re not alone. Americans have a long tradition of suspecting that we have a huge foreign aid budget. In 1997, 64% of Americans told pollsters that they thought our foreign aid budget was probably the single largest area of federal expenditures, higher than spending on the military, Social Security or Medicaid. In 2001, another poll asked Americans to estimate the percentage of federal spending that goes to foreign aid, and more than half the respondents guessed that foreign aid accounts for about 20% of the annual federal budget.

In fact, the international affairs budget is a 98-pound weakling of a budget, a puny thing that regularly gets sand kicked in its face by the big bruisers over at the Defense Department. Weighing in at $36.5 billion for fiscal year 2008, the international affairs budget annually accounts for only about 1% of total federal expenditures. It’s dwarfed by the Defense Department’s 2008 budget request ($481.4 billion for baseline funding, plus another $141.7 billion for GWOT, a.k.a. the global war on terror). And those figures don’t even count the cost of the war in Iraq, which has been financed almost entirely through a series of “emergency” supplemental funding requests, to the tune of roughly $100 billion a year.

Yet the international affairs budget is a crucial part of our national security spending. Societies racked by conflict, poverty, injustice, famine and disease make ineffective allies. They may provide havens for terrorists and global criminal enterprises. They offer prime recruiting ground for extremist groups. In our interconnected world, the money we spend on international affairs is money invested in our long-term prosperity and security.

Few political leaders dispute this, in principle. But tunnel vision and short-term thinking have turned our international affairs budget into the neglected stepchild of national security spending. In the mid-1980s -- during the heyday of the Reagan era -- the U.S. spent 15% more on international affairs each year than we spend now. Meanwhile, growth in military spending under the Bush administration has dramatically outpaced growth in all other foreign affairs spending, creating a striking imbalance. In 2008, we’re set to spend roughly $20 on the military for every $1 we spend on all other international programs. Increasingly, we’re focusing on war and weapons to the exclusion of all other foreign policy tools.

And the rest of the world has taken note. In January, a BBC poll found that around the globe, only 29% of people now think that the U.S. has a “mainly positive influence in world affairs,” while 52% considered our influence “mainly negative.”

That’s no way to run a railroad. When Congress reconvenes next week, conference committees are to hash out an agreement on 2008 international affairs funding. In the short term, Congress should fund the international affairs budget at least at the level requested by the White House. In the longer term, Congress and the White House should restore balance to our national security spending, substantially increasing funding for critical diplomatic initiatives, conflict prevention and foreign aid while cutting some of the unnecessary weapons systems that drive up military spending. And then there’s that war in Iraq....

Global HIV prevention, economic assistance, cultural exchanges, diplomacy, peacekeeping: In the end, it really does come down to sex, money, fame and power -- and the things we need to do to sustain our limping superpower in an unstable, interconnected world.