Investing in US Leadership

Budget cuts are threatening America's ability to make a difference in the world

When our administration took office in 1993, we faced an array of challenges that required urgent attention. Russia's democracy was in crisis; its economy was near collapse. The nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union was scattered among four new countries with few safeguards. The war in Bosnia was at the peak of its brutality and threatening to spread. North Korea was developing nuclear weapons. The Middle East peace process was stalemated. Repression in Haiti was pushing refugees to our shores. NAFTA's passage was in serious doubt, threatening our relations with the entire hemisphere.

Step by step we have resolved these pressing questions and built an enduring basis for our engagement in a more secure and prosperous world. Because of our military and economic might, because we are trusted to uphold universal values, there are times when only the United States can lead. We must lead not because the exercise of leadership is an end in itself but because it is necessary to advance the interest and ideals of our great nation.

This is the central lesson of our era. Because the US led, a century that was never safe for democracy is ending with peace and freedom ascendant. The end of the cold war has only strengthened the imperative of US leadership. The need for US leadership is rarely questioned in our country. Yet today our ability to lead is in question. The biggest crisis facing our foreign policy today is whether we will spend what we must. Since 1985 our spending on international affairs has been slashed by 50 percent in real terms. Our budget for foreign affairs is now just over 1 percent of the overall federal budget.

The amazing thing is these cuts have not been accompanied by any serious congressional debate. They have not been motivated by any reassessment of our interests in the world. Everyone is for US leadership in principle. Some people just think we can have it without paying the price. As a result, we are endangered by a new form of isolationism that demands American leadership but deprives America of the capacity to lead.

A voice in every nation

One casualty of inadequate resources will be the principle of universality in our representation abroad - the principle that there should be a US mission in virtually every country. Budget cuts have forced us to close more than two dozen consulates and several embassies.

In the last few years we have seen over and over again how vital our presence can be, often at unexpected times in unexpected places. More than 170 nations, from Albania to Zambia, had an equal say in extending the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and approving the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - and an equal need to be persuaded by on-the-spot American diplomacy.

We could not have negotiated the Dayton peace agreement if we had not had embassies in each of the former Yugoslav republics. We needed people on the ground in every Balkan capital to gather information, conduct negotiations, spotlight atrocities, prepare the way for our troops, and, not least, to symbolize our commitment.

Stark alternatives

Budget cuts have also forced the people who serve our country abroad to work under intolerable conditions. Our diplomats in Beijing work with obsolete technology in decaying buildings. At our embassy in Angola, which is a focal point of talks to end that country's civil war, our people work out of a makeshift trailer park. Our embassy in Tajikistan is run out of a Soviet-era hotel. These are the people we call on when Americans get into trouble, when our companies need help to crack new markets, when we need to track down terrorists and drug lords.

One of the principal tools of our diplomacy is foreign assistance. These programs give us the leverage our diplomacy needs to be effective. They help us prevent conflict and catastrophe. However, our assistance programs have declined by 37 percent in real dollars in the last 10 years. Half of our bilateral aid now supports the Middle East peace process. These funds advance a vital interest and must be fully preserved. But aid to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan will inevitably come under pressure, possibly irresistible pressure, if our other assistance programs continue to be decimated and this imbalance grows.

Another casualty has been our support for international institutions, including the international financial institutions and the United Nations. For 50 years the US has led in the UN because it is a valuable tool for advancing our interests. Now we face stark alternatives. We can continue to meet global challenges through the UN, where we share the burden with more than 180 nations. Or, we can meet them alone, forcing our soldiers to take all the risks and our taxpayers to foot all the bills.

By failing to pay our dues, we also compromise our ability to shape a smaller, leaner UN. But our campaign for reform has begun to make progress. The UN has a new secretary-general, a leader with the ability and conviction to make the UN an effective institution for the next century. The UN must do its part. But now so must we. It is time to pay our dues and our debts. It is time to recognize that we cannot reform and retreat at the same time.

I call on Congress to reassess the erosion of our diplomatic readiness and to support, on a bipartisan basis, the president's international affairs budget. This is a challenge that must be met if we are to maintain our strength in the next century.

*Warren Christopher is the outgoing US secretary of state. This article is adapted from his recent speech at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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