Diplomacy builds the bridges — so let’s put our money where our mouth is

If Biden wants to confront the competition, he must address the huge gap between the military and state department budgets.

It’s clear that some members of Congress are concerned that, with all this talk about ramping up U.S. diplomacy, resources could be shifted away from the Department of Defense to reinvest into civilian agencies like USAID and the Department of State. 

In that vein, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, published an op-ed for Defense News last month boldly titled, “President Biden shouldn’t replace military strength with diplomacy.” In the article, he argues the United States faces many challenges, but namely that Russia and China pose a unique threat to “our way of life.” Sen. Inhofe stated, “four straight years of increased funding for the military was just a start.” 

China and Russia do pose a challenge to U.S. influence around the world. But to counter this requires skillful diplomacy and honest development — not more military hardware. Washington must also accept that simply preaching democracy and human rights around the world will no longer work. If the Biden administration is serious about re-establishing U.S. legitimacy abroad it must start closing the yawning resource gap between the State Department and Pentagon.

China’s attempt to undercut American influence is primarily through its economic ambitions, with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and development through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI seeks to build China into a geopolitical bloc aligned with its policy ambitions of economic growth, and undermining U.S. global power and influence in the global financial system through the RCEP, which replaced the Trans-Pacific Partnership after Washington left. 

A major criticism of the BRI has been that China’s approach to foreign aid and development is extractive, and leaves the countries that they support in debt and financially hooked in its orbit. Developing authentic relationships with local people who have a unique understanding of the social and political environment is vital for the United States to re-establish itself as an honest partner for inclusive political processes and defending human rights. Working through the leadership of local civil society and experts is imperative. 

Similarly with Russia, a military-led approach in 1962 brought the world to the brink of self-destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Skillful diplomacy and negotiations, on the other hand, brought the two most nuclear nations in the world to agree on limits for nuclear armament and advancement. Today treaties like New START can be the building blocks of a new trust and will require strong diplomatic capacity, rather than military aggression or posturing.

In his first public conference since the inauguration, President Biden argued, “Diplomacy has always been essential to how America writes its own destiny.” Sen. Inhofe advised President Biden that “strong military underwrites strong diplomacy.” Wherever one may stand with that claim, funding for USAID and the State Department is woefully inadequate when compared with the military budget. Last year, USAID and State were appropriated $55.1 billion. In comparison, the most recent National Defense Authorization Act appropriated over $738 billion for the Department of Defense.  

“The last requested increase for the Defense Department over its existing budget equaled the totality of the State and Foreign Operations budget,” said Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, during his confirmation hearing with the Senate.  This discrepancy is what we call an overmilitarized U.S. foreign policy. 

Simultaneously advocating for an end to endless wars and increasing the military tool kit is equivalent to putting out a fire with a bucket of kerosene. And it’s the wrong approach to China and Russia. 

Genuine investments into foreign aid — focused on good governance and rule of law, conflict prevention, peace-building, mitigation and response, and reintegration and reconciliation programs — must be grounded in community-based solutions that address root causes of insecurity and include all key actors at the local level. This requires boosting funding for USAID and the Department of State.

Meanwhile, wherever and whenever military presence is necessary, it should have limited and defined objectives that are people-centered and realistic in its understanding of the U.S. interests and limits of success through military intervention. 

National security is not exclusive to the Department of Defense. It requires a coordinated effort by all foreign facing agencies, that includes diplomacy and development. So let’s put our money where our mouth is.

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