Trump’s Budget Blueprint: Pulling Up the Diplomatic Drawbridge

The White House budget plan embodies the administration’s “America First” nationalism, hiking spending on defense and border security while slashing everything else.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 16:  Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney takes questions from reporters during a briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House March 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mulvaney took questions about President Donald Trump's federal budget blueprint which was released Thursday.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 16: Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney takes questions from reporters during a briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House March 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mulvaney took questions about President Donald Trump's federal budget blueprint which was released Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal crystallizes the administration’s ideological priorities, calling for bolstering spending on the military and border security while gutting funding for diplomacy and foreign aid, scientific research, and most of the federal government.

The budget blueprint unveiled Thursday is short on details, and faces long odds in Congress, where Trump’s fellow Republicans expressed serious reservations about numerous funding cuts.

But as a political document, it reflects the White House’s preference for a narrow definition of U.S. interests not seen since before World War II. Titled “America First,” the Trump budget also reflects a deep skepticism of government programs meant to defuse conflicts, fight poverty abroad, or battle transnational challenges like climate change.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, described the blueprint for fiscal year 2018 as a “hard power budget.”

“The president wants to spend more money on defense, more money securing the border, more money enforcing the laws, and more money on school choice, without adding to the deficit,” Mulvaney told reporters.

The president’s plan would sharply boost defense spending by $54 billion, plus add another $2.8 billion for homeland security and $1.4 billion for maintaining the nuclear stockpile. To make the deficit math work, the White House wants offsetting cuts of more than 30 percent at the Environmental Protection Agency and about 28 percent at the State Department, as well as major cuts in the departments of Agriculture and Labor. But all those agencies have budgets just a fraction the size of the Pentagon.

Foreign diplomats expressed dismay, and Democratic lawmakers promptly condemned the proposed cuts to the State Department and USAID as short-sighted and reckless.

“If enacted this budget would only make the world more dangerous for America and Americans, and make it harder to safeguard our interests, promote our values and further expand our prosperity,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Republican leaders, many of whom said they supported the overall thrust of the budget, criticized specific cuts, including those aimed at the State Department.

“I’m absolutely shocked at the Administration’s puny request,” said Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the the House Appropriations’ Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. “The U.S. has a vital role to play in advancing democracy, protecting the innocent, helping the displaced and vulnerable, and offering diplomatic solutions to overseas unrest and other challenges abroad.”

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) also came out against massive cuts to foreign aid: “At a time when American leadership is needed more than ever, we must continue to invest in the International Affairs Budget.”

If adopted, the proposed combination of cuts to the State Department and USAID would mark the lowest level of funding for these programs since fiscal year 2002 in real, inflation adjusted terms, according to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a bipartisan group that promotes foreign aid.

Some experts and former officials reckon the State Department cuts are actually far deeper than the 28 percent figure outlined by the White House budget office, but there is some discrepancy over how deep.

The Global Leadership Coalition estimated that overall cuts would slash 31 percent of State’s 2017 budget.

Bathsheba Crocker, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations under the Obama administration, said when additional cuts to the international affairs budget are taken into account in a separate Overseas Contingency Operations budget, which supports operations in warzones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, including supplemental counter-terrorism funds, the plan would represent a nearly $20 billion reduction, from $58.8 billion to $37.6.

“Effectively, this remains a 36 percent cut to the State Department’s overall budget,” Crocker said.

In presenting its spending plans for the State Department, the Office of Management and Budget said the blueprint “seeks to reduce or end direct funding for international organizations whose missions do not substantially advance U.S. foreign policy interests, are duplicative, or are not well managed.”

If it were to pass Congress, the budget could put the administration on a collision course with the United Nations. The budget plan doesn’t spell out most of the U.N. cuts under consideration but it commits to reducing “funding to the U.N. and affiliated agencies,” including peacekeeping, and wants the funding burden more fairly shared.

The United States is legally obliged to pay 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget and about 28 percent of U.N. peacekeeping costs. Washington would need to negotiate an agreement with the U.N.’s 192 other members to cover a larger share of the budget. It remains unclear whether they can achieve such a deal. If the U.S. decided to withhold funding — as it did during the 1990s — it could run the risk of losing its voting rights before the U.N. General Assembly.

Determining the extent of funding cuts to the United Nations is impossible to gauge, Crocker said, but the reductions will be larger than advertised.

“It’s clear that U.N. agencies are going to take a major hit one way or another,” she added.

The budget would preserve a range of programs that fight malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, and fulfill a commitment to contribute $1 billion to fund vaccines. But it would severely cut funding to combatting climate change, and makes clear that it will not move forward on a pledge from former president Barack Obama to contribute an additional $2 billion to the Green Climate Fund.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the “abrupt funding cuts” might backfire on the Trump administration, undermining its efforts to pursue cost-cutting reforms at the United Nations, according to his spokesman Stephane Dujarric. Guterres said fighting terrorism “requires more than military spending. There is also a need to address the underlying drivers of terrorism.”

Although lawmakers could reject the cuts in the end, the administration’s  dim view of international assistance and diplomacy sparked concern among America’s allies.

“We need the U.S. to continue funding the U.N., and especially the missions on the ground which are necessary to uphold our common responsibility, especially concerning peace and security,” France’s U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told a group of reporters Thursday.

“America’s retreat and unilateralism, or even the perception of it by other players, would create the risk of coming back to the old spheres of influence policies. And history teaches us that is has only led to more instability,” Delattre said.

The budget plan also signals a retreat from another U.S. creation, proposing less funding for multilateral development banks, including the World Bank. It would cut about $650 million over three years “compared to commitments made by the previous administration,” the OMB said.

Reducing U.S. funding for the World Bank and other development banks could undermine Washington’s influence at those institutions, put at risk some anti-poverty programs, and possibly benefit China’s efforts to expand its role as a global player in trade, finance, and foreign aid, experts said.

Organizations like the World Bank help promote free-market norms and trade links. If Washington chooses to take a less active role at the bank, Beijing could fill the vacuum through its own development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), said Neil Ruiz, executive director of the Center for Law, Economics, and Finance at George Washington University. That would give more heft to Beijing’s vision of development finance — which can shape the politics and economies of big chunks of the world — at the expense of Washington’s.

“It could make the World Bank less competitive and the China’s AIIB a more powerful institution,” Ruiz said. “That could be an unintended consequence.”

FP reporters John Hudson, Molly O’Toole and Paul McLeary contributed to this article.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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