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 failures of U.S. strategy. The current budget process apportions dollars along rigid departmental lines, and focusing on a single department—even if it is the largest—will always prevent other instruments of U.S. power from getting the attention and funding they need.

To rectify this imbalance and integrate national security considerations across bureaucratic lines, Washington needs to fundamentally rethink the way it approaches the funding of its foreign policy. The United States should move toward a unified national security budget, which directly links funding decisions to a comprehensive National Security Strategy (NSS) and distributes resources to whichever department or agency can best get the job done. This national security budget will better match the means and ends of U.S. foreign policy and ensure that the country approaches a new international environment with both the military and the civilian tools it needs.


That today’s national security challenges call for more than a strong military should no longer be in dispute. The rise of China and other techno-authoritarian regimes could reshape technology standards, trade rules, and international institutions. White nationalism stalks communities around the world with newfound confidence. Cyberattacks threaten commerce, critical infrastructure, and democratic systems. A swiftly warming planet portends conflicts, refugee crises, and challenges to our very way of life.

Washington needs to fundamentally rethink the way it approaches the funding of its foreign policy. 

To confront these threats, the United States no doubt needs a powerful military, reoriented from massive deployments in the Middle East toward preventing wars with China and Russia. But no less important is maintaining an educated and well-trained workforce, resilient democratic institutions, a cutting-edge innovation ecosystem, and unparalleled diplomatic and development capabilities.

The current administration has failed to make these investments, opting instead to fetishize the military at the expense of everything else. Despite having issued a National Security Strategy that articulates a broad conception of security, the White House recently proposed increasing the defense budget by five percent while slashing 23 percent from the international affairs budget, 30 percent from humanitarian assistance, and 13 percent from the National Science Foundation.

But although this administration has made matters worse, the underlying problem is much older. In the years after Gates made his pitch for greater investments in civilian power, State and Foreign Operations budgets did grow, from $37 billion in fiscal year 2007 to almost $53 billion in 2010. But much of that increase was connected to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2010 total was still barely eight percent of the Pentagon’s budget that year, just as today’s international affairs budget is just under eight percent of the most recent defense budget.

The trend line has stayed flat for a number of reasons. Politicians believe that supporting Pentagon spending is the only way to prove that they take national security seriously, and officials have long refused to make hard choices about which security risks and defense projects to prioritize. Members of Congress also know that placing items into the defense budget, no matter how ill suited, will increase the likelihood of getting funding. Reducing defense spending in any given congressional district is notoriously difficult, given the many jobs on the line and the power of entrenched contractor interests. And so the vicious cycle continues: defense budgets climb as other funding falls, which means the military is asked to do more, which justifies even higher budgets, and on and on.


It is tempting to make this debate solely about the defense budget: after all, to borrow from Willie Sutton, that’s where the money is. But in order to avoid defense-first thinking that entrenches the military as the main tool of security or focuses on numbers to the detriment of overall strategy, Pentagon budget proposals should be one (critical) part of a fuller consideration of U.S. security investments.

That today’s national security challenges call for more than a strong military should no longer be in dispute.

Every four years or so, the National Security Strategy—issued by the White House in coordination with officials from across the executive branch—attempts to connect the different facets of U.S. security across departments and initiatives. Yet the annual budget process deliberately separates them. Funding for the various elements of the NSS is spread across multiple appropriations bills, all of which are separately considered. Defense is one unit, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs another, Homeland Security a third, State and Foreign Operations a fourth, and Energy and Water (home to National Nuclear Security Administration spending) yet another. At the beginning of the budget cycle, when the federal agencies work with the White House to write their budget proposals, and at the end of the appropriations process, when Congress allocates funding, the various elements of national security are effectively siloed from one another. This means lawmakers have little incentive to balance and integrate across the different categories.

A true course correction will require a budget process that animates a holistic strategy. Hence the need for a unified national security budget. The exact design could take a number of different forms (there are many worthy ideas already on the table), but any such process should have three basic components.

One, the administration should present its National Security Strategy annually—as is required by law but has not been done since the Clinton administration—laying out the interlocking pieces of what is needed to make the United States secure. It should also issue planning guidance on areas for increased investment and identify areas where decreased spending (and therefore higher risks) is deemed acceptable.

Two, the administration should simultaneously present a unified national security budget proposal designed explicitly to enact its strategy. The Office of Management and Budget would coordinate across agencies to assign resources to each element of the strategy and the accompanying planning guidance, adjudicating tradeoffs across departments. At a minimum, the proposal would include the bulk of what is currently presented in the budget categories of national defense and international affairs and in the Department of Homeland Security’s budget. It would also consider more foundational investments in innovation and industry. In the interests of long-term consistency, this budget would not provide just for the coming year but project five years out.

Three, in what is the tallest order, lawmakers should reform their own authorization and appropriations processes to allow for a holistic consideration of military and civilian functions. There are a number of possible routes to consider—require cross-subcommittee hearings, create a new supercommittee, break up and merge existing authorization and appropriations committees—each of which would require different degrees of structural change. Whichever path is chosen must allow Congress to reassess which programs belong where and to remove from the Pentagon programs that have been inappropriately lodged there owing to its outsize influence.


We are not the first to propose a national security budget. The Task Force on a Unified Security Budget has put forth annual proposals; then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted a version of this process in 2010; and Win Without War recently renewed calls for a Commission on Budgeting for National Security and International Affairs. These efforts demonstrate both the potential of the idea and the difficulties of realizing it—especially when it comes to the enormous amount of political capital that must be expended to make structural changes to the executive or legislative branch. Even if a new administration has the resolve to prioritize the initiative, it will still need to deal with downstream effects on the rest of the federal budget and navigate the politics over congressional committee jurisdictions and levels of power, which are so fraught that Congress has not passed a State Department authorization bill since 2002.

Now may be a uniquely opportune time for an overhaul.

What is more, a unified national security budget will have to avoid the unintended effect of further “securitizing” foreign policy. Labeling disparate efforts as security related can help procure funding but also risks twisting the purposes of those efforts. The United States should, for example, provide disaster assistance and fight disease because it’s the right thing to do, not only because doing so enhances national security. These initiatives belong in a security budget, as they make the world a safer, more stable place, but they should be included only with the express acknowledgment that there are other values at stake. 

These practical challenges lead many experts to a mixed conclusion about a unified national security budget: intriguing idea, never gonna happen. But the proposed changes need not be made in one fell swoop. The next president can take interim steps, such as creating mission-based budgets that span agencies for specific undertakings. And to those who say it simply cannot be done, recall that the United States has pursued structural budgetary reform before: the executive budgeting system was developed in 1921 to address concerns about a rising deficit, and the current congressional process stems only from 1974, when Congress feared the executive’s fiscal powers were outstripping its own. Today’s yawning gaps in security investments—gaps exacerbated by budgeting and perpetuated through policy—demand similar structural reform if the United States is to remain secure in the face of new threats and rising challengers.

Indeed, now may be a uniquely opportune time for such an overhaul. The Trump administration’s skyrocketing defense budgets and evisceration of the State Department have led many to recognize the need to do things differently. There are already bipartisan calls for new instruments, including an emergent cross-party push for an industrial policy that emphasizes domestic strength and civilian capabilities to meet foreign threats. The emergence of China as a long-term competitor has intensified the sense of urgency.

In short, there is a clear demand for change, and next year’s election is an opportunity for the next president and the next Congress to provide it. They should not simply restore what was there before but construct something fit to the task at hand: a unified national security budget that matches the right strategy with the right resources.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • BRETT ROSENBERG is Associate Director of Policy at National Security Action, a progressive foreign policy organization.
  • JAKE SULLIVAN is Co-Chair of National Security Action. He was National Security Adviser to former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department.
  • More By Brett Rosenberg
  • More By Jake Sullivan