As America's overseas military forces are downsized, a robust diplomatic presence abroad becomes more important than ever. International threats such as terrorism, narcotics, regional conflicts, and nuclear proliferation continue to imperil our nation's security and prosperity.
Yet despite these threats to American interests, in real terms funding to maintain our diplomatic readiness is at its lowest point since World War II. Current international affairs spending ($18.78 billion in fiscal 1998 dollars) is 25 percent below the annual average of the past 20 years ($24.97 billion), and 30 percent below the level of a decade ago ($26.68 billion).
We are in a time of unprecedented global change. Arms proliferators, international terrorists, producers of chemical weaponry, and drug cartels continue their machinations, posing real and tangible threats to the health, prosperity, and security of American citizens at home and abroad. Potential flash points that could threaten US economic and security interests are present in every part of the globe. As the World Trade Center bombing, illegal Chinese arms smuggling, and the drugs that pollute our streets have proven, we cannot afford to turn our backs on the world.
However, after several years of deep budget reductions, we are at a historic low in spending on diplomatic readiness. Unless this trend is reversed, American interests will be seriously threatened. And, contrary to most Americans' perceptions, foreign affairs spending is an extremely small portion of the federal budget. Currently, it's just 1.1 percent.
Our international affairs dollars are important investments in American economic and security interests. For example, trade promotion activities generate $15 billion to $20 billion in exports each year and support more than 300,000 American jobs. In Russia, assistance programs are helping to speed the dismantlement of the Armageddon arsenal constructed by the Soviet Union during the cold war. American aid helps train overseas law enforcement officials to crack down on organized crime, drug trafficking, and money laundering. And across Eastern Europe and Eurasia, American advisers are helping nations make the tenuous transition from communism to democratic capitalism, so that the benefits of our cold-war victory are not lost.
But at the State Department, modernization of basic equipment, taken for granted elsewhere in the government, has long been deferred. Renovation and repair of overseas buildings have been delayed. Our embassy in Beijing, a key post, is literally falling apart. US diplomats labor with outdated equipment; many still use 1970s technology.
"Diplomatic readiness" is more than a government buzzword. US diplomats overseas are the front line of our national defense. In an age when the American media, eyeing the bottom line, have reduced overseas bureaus, diplomats on the ground are even more essential to understanding complex political and economic forces affecting allies and adversaries alike. Not only have budget cuts curtailed in-country travel for our diplomats, but we are at our lowest level of overseas diplomatic presence since 1980.
Preventing loss of lives
Creative diplomacy can avert conflicts - and prevent the spilling of American blood. Diplomacy on the ground by Jimmy Carter, Gen. Colin Powell, and Sen. Sam Nunn averted a forced invasion of Haiti by US troops and most likely saved American lives. American diplomacy at Dayton ended the Bosnian war and facilitated the uncontested entry of NATO forces, which offer a chance for peace.
During her confirmation hearings earlier this year, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned that effective diplomacy cannot be conducted "on the cheap." As foreign policy programs are examined to eliminate duplication and waste, we in the Congress must keep in mind the needs of the next century and the importance of our diplomatic presence abroad. In this vein, I believe we must maintain the president's international affairs budget request of $19.45 billion as the absolute minimum for this coming fiscal year.
I'm not the only one who feels this way. An independent, bipartisan blue ribbon panel jointly sponsored by the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations expressed a similar sentiment. It concluded that reductions "have adversely affected, to a significant degree, the ability of the United States to protect and promote its economic, diplomatic, and strategic agendas abroad."
Congress will soon make important decisions about federal spending for the next five years; the goal is a balanced budget by 2002. Just as the Senate recently exercised leadership in approving the Chemical Weapons Convention - which I firmly believe was a historic moment - the Congress needs to reinforce America's leadership in the world and provide the resources necessary to protect our interests overseas.
We also bear a responsibility to explain to the American people the benefits from these investments, as well as the costs of not making them. Rather than resting on our laurels after winning the cold war, we must be even more resolute, lest we squander an opportunity to bring peace and democracy to even more people across the globe.
* Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware is the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.