The world has never been more dependent on American leadership in peacemaking, economic expansion, and humanitarian relief than it is now. That's why an appeal in President Clinton's Feb. 4 State of the Union message was timely. He pledged to "renew our commitment to America's diplomacy" - a commitment that is tangibly slipping in terms of the spending allocated by Congress.
A report issued last year by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University noted that the 1996 US budget for international affairs was the lowest in a decade. The State Department has cut foreign posts and laid off 2,000 employees since 1993. The training of new foreign service officers has been sharply cut. Foreign aid, not surprisingly, has taken a particularly sharp reduction. By the end of the decade, budgetary restrictions will slice the worldwide involvement of the Agency for International Development from 120 countries (in 1993) to 75.
But aren't all departments of government taking trims these days? That's true to a point, and the State Department and other agencies engaged internationally must do their share of slimming down. The danger, however, is that spending in this realm - already a bare 1 percent of federal outlays - has none of the domestic political backing that shields other parts of the budget. Where's the constituency for foreign aid, for instance?
During the cold war, aid served to counter Soviet influence in various parts of the world. That aid was heavily tilted toward military assistance, and it all too often had little relation to real need. But the rationale for aid, at least, was rarely questioned. With superpower competition absent, a new rationale is needed, and it has to blend US economic and security self-interest with humanitarian concern.
Well targeted, limited-term aid can help foster greater prosperity in countries struggling to get out from under stultifying, state-controlled economic systems. Down the line, that means greater prosperity all around.
The president has proposed raising US spending on diplomacy and foreign aid by $1.3 billion in 1998, to $19.5 billion. That total includes more aid for former East-bloc nations and a start on paying dues owed to the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.
Such outlays barely register in a $1.69 trillion national budget. But they have worldwide implications. As the Georgetown study stated, "Ultimately, the tools to do the job of sustaining US global leadership are at stake."