THE budget ax, which evokes trepidation across the federal bureaucracy, is poised to fall hard on Foggy Bottom.
At the State Department, officials are gravely concerned about imminent cutbacks needed to produce the government downsizing called for by the 104th Congress.
They say the possible loss of up to one-third of the foreign-affairs budget over the next several years comes at a particularly bad time: just as the end of the cold war has broadened the agenda of United States foreign policy and as the US consolidates a new diplomatic presence in about two-dozen nations formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"The implications of the pending budget cuts are still hard to quantify, but our capacity for carrying out our basic mission will be very much diminished," says Richard Moose, State Department undersecretary for management.
"A whole range of unconventional foreign affairs issues that affect us domestically - including trade promotion and narcotics control efforts - will fall out if Congress only funds passports, visas, and overseas security," he adds.
"Rethinking the foreign-affairs budget in the post-cold-war era is a useful exercise," notes David Gordon, foreign-policy adviser at the Overseas Development Council in Washington. "But there's a danger that these changes will be done in an ad hoc way, devoid of any serious discussion of long-term US interests and without reference to US spending on defense and intelligence-gathering."
Mr. Gordon says the cuts will force hard decisions on, among other things, whether the US should continue to fund the Middle East peace process at the same level and how to balance foreign aid with other international obligations, including operating embassies, contributing to international organizations, and funding peacekeeping missions.
Many conservative lawmakers favor deep cuts, arguing the State Department is poorly managed, that the US wastes millions each year on failed foreign-aid programs, and that separate agencies dealing with issues like arms control have become anachronisms in the post-cold-war era.
Even before the current budget crunch, the State Department had trimmed its overseas operations. Eighteen consulates and two small African embassies were shut down in 1993 and 1994. Thirteen of 19 more US facilities slated for closure in 1995 and 1996 have been phased out. If the worst budget projections materialize, department officials say, the US might have to close down as many as 160 additional facilities.
The only way the US can maintain the "near universality in representation" required of the world's only superpower will be to scale back on the scope of its overseas activities, Mr. Moose says.
That will mean providing less support to the foreign operations of US commercial, military, intelligence, and law-enforcement agencies. It will also mean cutting back on programs - part of the broadened post-cold-war agenda - that have significant implications at home: promoting trade, fighting international crime and drug trafficking, and dealing with environmental and population pressures that each year generate millions of new refugees and thus increase pressures to emigrate to the US.
If federal discretionary spending is cut by around $300 billion over the next seven years - the approximate target reached by the White House and congressional Republicans - and if the amount for foreign affairs takes its fair share of the cut, then total foreign-affairs spending could drop by up to one-fourth, from its current $20.5 billion to between $15 and $16 billion, State Department officials calculate.
Subtracting the annual $5 billion in foreign aid earmarked for Israel and Egypt, the working budget for foreign affairs could actually drop by as much as one-third.
"Foreign affairs could get a declining share of declining resources," says Tex Harris, president of the American Foreign Service Association.
Authorizing legislation now in a House-Senate conference committee requires that much of the cuts be absorbed by three agencies - the Agency for International Development, the Information Agency, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency - which will have to be downsized significantly or abolished.
Budget cuts will lessen US ability to help alleviate poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation in poor nations - problems that bear directly on US interests and that, unattended, could lead to greater expenditures in the future, says another senior official.
The State Department maintains about 260 posts worldwide, including embassies, consulates, and missions. It provides services for and protects Americans overseas and gathers information about local affairs.
US embassies and consulates are also increasingly engaged in helping to open foreign markets for US businesses.
"Things have gotten out of balance," Mr. Harris says. "The first line of America's defense - diplomacy - which is both low-cost and low-risk, is taken for granted and funding is cut. But the second and third lines of American defense - intelligence and the military - get more funding than they ask for."