THE official representation of the United States abroad serves the national interest by reporting on the world, pursuing trade, maintaining ties with other governments, and serving the needs of citizens. The effectiveness of that representation is today challenged by a serious budget crisis, compounded by the impasse between the executive and the Congress; by traditional stereotypes of the diplomatic service; and by other foreign affairs priorities in the administration. The secretary of state and other senior departmental officials have appeared on Capitol Hill to plead the case for a larger foreign affairs budget. A joint working group of the Atlantic Council and the Citizens' Network for Foreign Affairs has emphasized the problem in a recently issued policy paper.
As the policy paper points out, ``In the spring of 1986 Congress singled out the international affairs budget for a funding cut of 27 percent. Secretary Shultz has explained that the effect would be considerably more serious than might have been anticipated: `Once you account for the highest priority commitments which must be funded, the effective cut for the bulk of our foreign affairs operations is more on the order of 50 percent.''' This means not only cuts in funds for humanitarian relief, assistance programs in key areas, narcotics programs, security programs, and public diplomacy, but the closing of at least seven, and probably more, consular posts around the world. Some of these posts have been open to serve citizens abroad and to issue visas since the earliest days of the republic.
The budget crisis is further compounded by unexpected additional costs resulting from the fall of the dollar and from the need to replace Soviet support personnel with Americans in the embassy in the Soviet Union. The foreign affairs budget has always been one of the smallest and leanest; its activities are hurt harder than others when ``across-the-board'' percentage cuts are made. Of the approximately $20 billion in the total foreign affairs budget, less than $2 billion is allocated to the Department of State, including the nation's diplomatic service, a minuscule sum in relation, for example, to the Defense Department.
In the pursuit of a larger allocation in Congress, officials with foreign affairs responsibilities face ambivalent attitudes in Congress and the public. Foreign economic assistance has long been unpopular. Though many US diplomats have been killed in the line of duty and many others risk their lives daily, the image of the Eastern elite ``cookiepusher'' will not die. One can hear Americans praise the individual courage of a Foreign Service officer and repeat a derogatory comment concerning diplomats in the same breath - as if there were no connection between the two. Those opposed to traditional foreign policies on ideological grounds withhold support because they do not like the secretary or the policies.
Many citizens do rally to the support of the secretary of state and seek a more adequate foreign affairs budget, but generally they are people who have been involved in some international role. To those who harbor the traditional suspicion of diplomats, these efforts are seen as ``special pleading'' and lose their effectiveness.
The foreign affairs budget is, furthermore, trapped in the larger confrontation between the Congress and the president over priorities and taxes. Sympathetic members of Congress who understand the problems insist that the solution lies not with the legislators, but with the administration. The administration insists that it supports a larger allocation for the foreign affairs agencies, but that to achieve this domestic programs must be cut, a position unpopular in the Senate and the House. Whatever the secretary of state or outside friends of the foreign affairs agencies can do, the most significant position is that of the White House.
If the emphasis there is on aid for resistance movements under the Reagan Doctrine, ``star wars,'' or aid to strategic allies, traditional diplomatic needs will not get sufficient attention in Congress. Americans do desire to play a constructive role in the world.
The enthusiasm and support of the public and the Congress tend to mobilize only in favor of special initiatives, whether it's the Point Four Program, the Peace Corps, or the Alliance for Progress. In the absence of strong support from an administration, it has proved more difficult to get the same degree of enthusiasm for the basic needs of the diplomatic framework through which, in the last analysis, that effective role must be promoted and managed.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.