A soft power bargain

Share via

On Valentine’s Day, Congress received a gift from President Obama: the federal budget for fiscal year 2012. As its opening shot in what promises to be a long and hard budgetary battle, the White House requested $47 billion for the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Although this is a 1% increase overall — with extra money primarily dedicated for preventing and treating HIV/AIDS and malaria — it makes cuts in most other major programs.

Although belt-tightening is undoubtedly necessary, too many Americans — and members of Congress — think the country’s fiscal problems can be solved by slashing foreign aid. Some in the Republican Party, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), have proposed eliminating foreign aid entirely; others suggest paring the State Department budget to 2008 levels. Though these are easy short-term targets, they would neuter the diplomatic and development professionals who promote U.S. interests abroad.

In short, a fully funded foreign assistance budget is essential to prevent the political instability and violent conflict that harms American security.


The current fiscal climate demands austerity, discipline and sacrifice as ballooning debts threaten U.S. competitiveness. But Congress must not be penny-wise and dollar-foolish. Vigorous diplomacy — made possible by foreign aid — is the cheapest and most enduring means to exercise geopolitical leadership.

Nobody understands the value of diplomacy better than the military. As the 2011 National Military Strategy states, “[P]reventing wars is as important as winning them and far less costly.” Putting this idea into more concrete terms, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned this month that “having a robust enough [State Department] budget to be able to meet the needs of our times is absolutely mandatory.”

The State Department and USAID have an unparalleled capability for conflict prevention. Civilians lead the way in preventing conflict in areas where there is little or no military footprint. Through their expertise and provision of foreign aid, the State Department and USAID build on-the-ground capacity for governance, promote economic development, mediate disputes and create the pillars of a stable society. As the U.S. military withdraws from Iraq by year’s end, civilians will be indispensible for consolidating the costly and hard-fought gains achieved by U.S. troops.

Civilians are also crucial to winning wars: Uniformed and civilian leaders recognize that the military cannot prevail alone. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has noted, “[T]he most important lesson from our experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere has been the decisive role reconstruction, development and governance plays in any meaningful, long-term success.” Army Gen. David Petraeus has echoed this theme with his 80/20 formulation: To succeed in counterinsurgency, 80% of funding and focus should be on political activities and only 20% on providing security. It is a disturbing fact that Congress often accepts military leaders’ assessments of their own budgetary needs, while flagrantly disregarding their repeated calls for stronger civilian partners.

Nevertheless, in each budget season, the debate over cutting U.S. diplomatic funding returns. Given the indispensability of civilian partners, why does Congress annually make the secretary of State fight for every penny of the foreign assistance budget? The answer is twofold.

First, Congress’ eagerness to decrease foreign aid reflects the attitude of the U.S. public. Americans have disappointingly little understanding of the true costs and benefits of foreign aid. In a November 2010 University of Maryland poll, respondents estimated that 25% of the U.S. federal budget goes to foreign aid. A 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 45% of Americans believe foreign aid is one of the two greatest categories of spending. In reality, last year’s foreign assistance budget accounted for only 1.2% of the $3.83-trillion budget. The facts about foreign assistance are readily available (see, yet the contrast between perception and truth is staggering, and enduring misperceptions spur calls for cuts.


Second, compared with the immediate responsiveness of military action, it is inherently difficult to prove that civilian-led development and diplomatic programs have prevented political instability and conflict. Whereas the military can measure success in targets destroyed and enemy combatants killed, it is far more challenging to prove the impact of new schools, roads or water treatment facilities. The problem of identifying successful prevention obfuscates the importance of American soft power.

The budget debate this year will be particularly vitriolic. But as Congress wields its scalpel, it must not gouge the United States’ foreign policy muscle while shaving budgetary fat. Decreasing the deficit is a crucial goal and one with bearing on U.S. national security. But cuts should be put in perspective: Even eliminating all foreign assistance would amount to a mere 1% of the budget, but it would mean immediate and dire consequences for U.S. global influence. That’s no bargain.

Micah Zenko and Rebecca R. Friedman are, respectively, a fellow and research associate in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. Zenko is the author of “Between Threats and War.”