Where is the outrage?

Where is the outrage?

Responding to six months of DOD clamor that the Budget Control Act would decimate our national defense, this week the House of Representatives moved forward with a budget that would allow the Department of Defense to escape the strictures of sequestration, giving DOD a $519 billion baseline budget and $88.5 billion operations fund. Sequestration would have imposed a roughly 12 percent cut to Defense across ten years. The same House budget imposes a 12 percent reduction this year on the State Department budget requested by the White House. Yet where is the leadership of the Department — and the Obama administration, who championed civilian power?

Where is the full-throated objection that we will cease to be a global power if our diplomacy is gutted? Where is the president’s veto threat? Where is the detailed departmental projection of what essential functions will be impossible to perform? Where is the orchestrated White House strategy of business leaders and civil society groups and average Americans who stand to be negatively affected by the cuts? State has only rolled out assistant secretaries to defend specific programs (like the $700 million in aid for democratization); a threat of this magnitude requires a high-level full-court press. All this has been done by and for Defense.

I agree with Peter that, sadly, an even wider swath of civilian activity will be shifted into the military as national security spending is reduced. However, I think his contention that the State Department and other civilian agencies cannot perform these functions merits further examination. In particular, it is not necessarily true that organizations cannot perform additional functions without additional resources or without shedding other functions. They can rethink their business model to make it more cost-effective, and they can reinvent how they perform their functions. The State Department is long overdue for a serious assessment of how it performs the crucial work of American diplomacy. 

Why do we accept that money is always the answer in the State Department? It is an important input, certainly, but money is not determinative. The best funded militaries do not always win their wars. The best funded companies are not always market leaders, and they are rarely market innovators. When a sympathetic reporter suggested to Steve Jobs in the 1980s that it had lost the competition with Microsoft because Apple didn’t have the resources, Jobs memorably said "innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it." The American military will likely have to shoulder an even greater proportion of what needs doing, but not because of money. More civilian functions will move into the military realm because of the people they have, how they’re led, and how much they get it.

State still has an institutional culture defined by reporting — describing what is happening rather than affecting change. It has barely changed its practices despite an explosion of information sources in the past twenty years. It continues a professional development model that invests nothing in our diplomats, producing generalist foreign service officers in an age when detailed knowledge is at a premium. Almost the entirety of its training budget goes to language, yet it typically does not produce diplomats proficient enough to debate American policies in the language of the country they are stationed. It considers "public diplomacy" somehow separate from the fundamental tasks of diplomacy. Despite a renaissance of private philanthropy and emergence of remittances, USAID still has not answered the fundamental question of what functions in foreign assistance need to be undertaken by governments. These are problems of institutional culture, not problems of funding.

But if the problem is money, why isn’t the State Department fighting for it? Why isn’t the leadership contesting the spending levels and priorities in advance of the bill passing? The president has often said in the context of the wars that we can’t care more about building democracy than they — the country affected — does. The same holds true for budgeting: The Obama administration shouldn’t expect us to care more about building civilian capacity than they do.