Foreign affairs: a budget pariah

AS the Congress and the Reagan administration meet to grapple with the US federal budget, the fate of that portion of the budget that goes to foreign affairs will be among the many issues at stake. Although it's a small part of the total budget, no other appropriation seems to have less general support; yet none carries as many implications for our relationship with the rest of the world. Despite the continuing efforts of the secretary of state and his officers, the foreign affairs share of the budget faces severe cuts. Significant foreign assistance, obligations to international organizations, the existence of some embassies and consulates, and vital diplomatic activities are all affected. Many experienced Foreign Service officers face unexpected involuntary retirement. Important interests are at stake:

The US ability to observe a changing world: Americans do not like surprises; yet, in curtailing the capacity of our diplomacy, we reduce our ability to sense in advance those dramatic events that will affect our national interests. Neither intelligence agencies nor visitors from Washington can fully replace the access and observations of diplomats in world capitals.

The morale and training of diplomats: Today about 3,000 men and women - Foreign Service officers of the United States - serve their nation, often at great personal hardship and risk, in Washington and overseas. Plans for a reduction in this force and in the opportunities for language instruction and other training essentials resulting from predicted budget cuts raise questions about the United States's ability to conduct effective diplomacy.

Services to US citizens: Help to citizens abroad, as well as the pursuit of national interests in trade, finance, and business, is in the hands of the foreign affairs agencies abroad. Budget cuts will drastically reduce the capacity of these agencies to meet such needs.

Foreign assistance: Never popular with the lawmakers, the funds the United States provides to other nations represent our only vehicle for responding to disasters, to economic crises, and to our political and strategic needs. Cuts come at a time when the need for an effective US influence in troubled areas of the world is greater than ever.

International Organizations: At the very moment when US diplomatic efforts in New York have reversed some of the tendencies in the United Nations that gave us problems, budget cuts will reduce our contributions and remove the incentives for the reforms we have long advocated.

Given these important interests, the foreign affairs budget faces unique obstacles in the process of authorizing and allocating funds. In competing with other demands on the federal budget, foreign policy lacks the type of domestic constituency that rings bells in both the White House and the Congress. No easily apparent relationship exists with domestic needs; the foreign affairs agencies lack the political leverage of military bases, or defense contracts, or the patriotic appeal that supports advocates for the armed services.

Congress is clearly not indifferent to overseas needs. But conversations with members of Congress suggest that the foreign affairs budget, lacking a constituency, will be one of the bargaining chips in the struggle with the White House over new revenues and cuts in defense. The congressional interest, moreover, is often manifested through the appropriation of funds or the creation of offices within the State Department to deal with special problems that have, at a given moment, a high political profile.

The substantial sums allocated to security requirements represent an example. Other congressional interventions seek to keep open certain consulates or establish offices to deal with human rights or narcotics. Each is a worthy cause, but each specific congressional directive takes funds from the core tasks of diplomacy and robs the managers of the State Department of the flexibility needed to deal with today's problems.

Ironically, the heavy cut in the foreign affairs budget comes at a time when Soviet diplomacy is becoming more skillful and more active. The Soviets have paid up their debts to the UN and are opening contacts with governments they previously avoided. Washington seems concerned about the possibility of Soviet military advances in the Middle East, but less concerned that US diplomatic competence be kept at a level to match this new challenge.

Pleas from the foreign affairs community about the foreign affairs budget are not new, but this time the situation seems more serious than ever. If truly concerned with our posture in the world, all parties in the dialogue on the budget need to take another look at this critical portion of our national expenditures.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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