The First Post-Cold-War Budget

NOT far behind the guns of January in the Gulf lie the annual routines of February in Washington. The budget the president has just sent to Congress for review and enactment, however, is anything but routine. It represents the nation's first since the end of the cold war. Some observers, viewing the occasion as the best chance in 40 years for a fundamental reorientation of national security policies, look for the first real fruits of the passing of the cold-war world in budget savings and creative opportunities. Most, however, believe war in the Gulf and backsliding in the Soviet Union will postpone major changes for at least a year.

For the moment, the skeptics have the edge. The Gulf war seems to underscore the importance of heavy defense expenditures and of military and economic aid deployed in the service of strategic objectives. The resurgence of conservative forces in the Soviet Union seems to suggest that while progressive changes in Eastern Europe may be irreversible, it is too soon to count out the Soviet Union itself as a potential threat to the United States.

The financial, human, and political costs of Operation Desert Storm may indeed work against the overdue reordering of US defense and foreign aid priorities and against a domestic peace dividend as well. Incurring costs conservatively estimated at $500 million a day in this so-called ``off budget war,'' the US is spending the equivalent of a year's American foreign aid every month. Five days of war represent a year's expenditures on the WIC program, which provides 4.5 million American women, infants, and children supplemental food and social-service referrals.

BUT to argue that Saddam Hussein and Mikhail Gorbachev have wolfed down the peace dividend is unfair. Some defense experts, allowing for a temporary interruption in a downward trend of military expenditures, still anticipate a cumulative trillion dollar dividend by decade's end. Desert Storm is itself evidence of a changed geopolitical climate in which the two superpowers are charting a fairly common course.

Congress has already set the stage for scrutinizing cold-war defense and foreign aid policies. In recent years it has requested the administration to ``review the extent to which the objectives and makeup of future US foreign assistance might be recast in the light of the changing geopolitical situation.'' The following issues will be key:

First, does the president's first post-cold-war budget acknowledge that the Warsaw Pact countries, if not the Soviet Union itself, are no longer threats to US security? Will traditional expenditures on US defense, regional military alliances, military assistance to developing countries, and international intelligence-gathering be trimmed accordingly?

Second, does the budget reflect the now clearer threats to US security represented by unmet basic human needs, abroad and at home? Will more resources go toward alleviating hunger and poverty and safeguarding human rights? Will other efforts to address problems in developing countries that affect the quality of life in the US be better funded: protecting the environment, assisting refugees and displaced persons, pressing ahead against AIDs and other diseases?

Third, does the budget affirm the newfound importance of the United Nations? Will the US embrace a more principled multilateralism, accelerating payment of the more than $500 million that make this nation the UN system's most egregious delinquent? On the bilateral side, will hitherto sacrosanct country allocations be reviewed on their merits? Will the straitjacketing of aid with ``buy American'' obligations be relaxed? Will democratic reforms in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe be encouraged without reducing resources available for developing countries?

Finally, is the president articulating a new vision of cooperative and mutually beneficial post-cold-war relationships with developing countries? Will that vision capture the imagination of Americans who, for good reason, have tired of an aid program out of step with their values and instincts? Will ``foreign'' aid become instead an investment in a more just world for all its people?

The skeptics are right in cautioning that Washington is a one-crisis town. Yet policymakers should be pressed to look beyond the Gulf war to the reshaping of longer-term US defense and foreign aid policies for a new age. Despite this year's constraints, the broad outlines of policies suited to a more just world order need to be sketched out and resources redirected accordingly.

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