Major Military Increases Comes with Deep Cuts to Diplomacy and Foreign Assistance


In testimony to the Foreign Relations Committee on June 13, 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson strongly supported increasing the U.S. military (“hard power”) budget by 10%, while deeply cutting America’s diplomacy and foreign assistance (“soft power”) capabilities, which represent only 1% of the national budget, by 30%. This would slash the International Affairs account, which funds the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budget down to 1980s levels.

Secretary Tillerson said his business experience in restructuring and downsizing serves him well in overseeing these steep cuts to the International Affairs account. He said the proposed cuts support the President’s “American First” Vision to:

  • Defend U.S. National Security
  • Assert U.S. Leadership and Influence
  • Foster Opportunities for U.S. Economic Interests
  • Ensure Effectiveness and Accountability to the U.S. Taxpayer

He characterized the State Department and USAID staff, which the Administration proposes cutting by 9%, as a “deep source of inspiration” for “their patriotism, professionalism, and willingness to make sacrifices,” but concluded that they would “continue to deliver results” with less funding and less people.

“Soft power” was coined in the late 1980s by Joseph Nye (historian, former assistant secretary of defense, and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government). The term describes a country’s ability to persuade others to do what it wants without resorting to force or coercion. More recently, Nye has noted that the world of the 21st Century is undergoing two drastic global power shifts: (1) power is in transition among states; and (2) there is also a diffusion of power away from states to non-state actors. He argues that these twin historic challenges necessitate that America adeptly leveraging both hard and soft power to promote U.S. national interests and security.

Critics of the Administration’s proposed cuts to America’s “soft power” include members of both Parties in Congress, active duty and retired military leaders, national security experts, and business leaders. Contrary to the goals of the “America First” vision, they argue that cutting “soft power” damages U.S. national security and diminishes American influence and economic opportunities abroad

On the same day that Secretary Tillerson argued his support for the cuts, sixteen retired General Officers jointly submitted a written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee opposing any cuts to the State Department and USAID budget, while prominent leaders in foreign affairs, such as former USAID Administrator, Andrew Natsios, a 23-year veteran of the United States Army Reserve, who served in the First Gulf War and retired in 1995 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel (“What Trump’s Foreign Aid Budget Means to the Rest of the World”, and General Colin Powell, former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (“American Leadership – We Can’t Do It For Free”), have written editorials opposing cuts to the International Affairs account.

At Secretary Tillerson’s testimony, Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Appropriates Committee, and a retired Colonel, U.S. Air Force Reserves, called the cuts “radical and reckless when it comes to soft power.” He said: “I want the country to know that if you eliminated the State Department…If you cripple the State Department it’s not about debt, it’s about American security and values being impeded.”

Despite strong opposition, the Administration’s opening gambit of such steep downsizing to America’s diplomacy and foreign assistance indicate cuts will likely be made one way or the other, and Secretary Tillerson is already beginning to plan for cuts and restructuring at both the State Department and USAID. Among these, the senior level State Department office overseeing Afghanistan and Pakistan is poised for closing.

At this time when the Administration is preparing to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan, the strength of America’s soft power must also be sustained to realize regional political and diplomatic solutions to this 16-year war.

Kanava International