The Case for a National Security Budget

Why a Better American Foreign Policy Requires a New Way of Paying for It

U.S. and Japanese ships in formation in the Philippine Sea, November 2018 Kaila V. Peters / U.S. Navy / Reuters

In 2007, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates issued a call that would, he predicted, strike many officials in his own department as “blasphemy”: the United States needed to spend more on diplomacy, foreign aid, and other nonmilitary tools of foreign policy. “Having a sitting secretary of defense . . . make a pitch to increase the budget of other agencies might,” Gates noted, “fit into the category of ‘man bites dog.’”

Not so today. It has become ordinary, even orthodoxy, for national security professionals to lament how the underfunding of civilian tools has fueled an overmilitarized foreign policy that is ill-equipped to take on today’s most pressing challenges. As James Mattis, then the commander of U.S. Central Command, put it in 2013: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Unfortunately, this rhetorical consensus has not produced the necessary rebalance in resources. If anything, the situation has gotten worse since Gates’s speech. When Mattis himself took over the Defense Department in 2017, his own words were frequently quoted back to him. Yet the administration he served promptly proposed boosting defense spending and tried to drastically cut funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Even with congressional pushback, this year’s defense budget of $738 billion is 13 times the international affairs budget (which funds State, USAID, and international programs administered by the Departments of Agriculture, the Treasury, and other agencies).

A common reaction today, including among a number of the Democratic presidential candidates, is to demand cuts in defense spending. This is a logical argument. After all, the White House’s latest Pentagon budget is $112 billion higher than what the department spent in the year U.S. President Donald Trump took office—an increase that could cover the annual cost of tuition-free college or universal childcare with room to spare.

But simply cutting Pentagon funding is not sufficient to address the persistent overreliance on the military and the concomitant

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