Diplomacy's puny budget

Does the United States provide sufficient resources for the conduct of its foreign relations? Ask many in the front lines of US diplomacy and the answer will be "no." The question is relevant as America's obligations grow in a multifaceted and multi-conflict world.

President Clinton's fiscal year 2000 budget request submitted last month asked for $21.3 billion for international affairs, approximately 1 percent of the total budget. This figure represents $300 million less than was actually appropriated in fiscal year 1999.

The needs are great. As a global power and key member of both the United Nations Security Council and NATO, the US cannot avoid pressures to reshape and expand its diplomatic presence.

In a revolutionary communications age, State Department communications are woefully obsolete. When the Soviet Union collapsed, 13 new nations were born generating a sudden need for funds and personnel to establish new diplomatic missions. As crises occur, whether in Bosnia, Kosovo, the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, or the Middle East, demands arise for observers and negotiators. Major global conferences on such issues as the environment, health, population, women's issues, or nonproliferation require delegates and staffs. But additional funds have not been provided to meet these needs. The State Department had to shift resources from other priority tasks to meet the new requirements.

The only major new funding in the FY 2000 budget is $3 billion to be spent over five years to make embassies more secure in the wake of recent terrorist attacks and threats. No one can dispute the need to reduce the risk to US diplomatic personnel. At a time of greater global needs, however, it is unfortunate that the current increases in the foreign affairs budget representing a static choice of protection are not matched by resources to support a more active projection of US interests in a dangerous world.

In few cases has the State Department received supplemental funds to meet other new demands. In fact, over the last decade and a half, the trend in foreign affairs funding has been down - despite the world exigencies. In real 1998 dollars, international affairs funding in 1985 was $37.3 billion; in 1998, the comparable figure was $19 billion, a drop of 50 percent from the earlier amount.

The amount available for US diplomacy is even less than the budget figures. The international affairs account includes not only the State Department and agencies such as the US Information Agency (USIA) and the Agency for International Development (USAID) but also the special sums for Middle East peace efforts, the United Nations, and even the Export-Import Bank. With the incorporation of USIA into the State Department, Congress will look for even more savings and, probably, more reductions in this account.

A new approach is needed. Funds for diplomacy are seldom viewed, either in the executive branch or in Congress, as a vital arm of national security. Yet in today's world it is the diplomats who are the casualties; they are on the front lines. But congressional arguments tend to center on whether embassies abroad are too palatial, whether diplomats have too many "perks," and whether those in "striped pants" who deal with foreigners really represent America.

No one would suggest that the international affairs budget should be comparable to that of Defense. (In FY 2000, the requested increase in defense spending of $12.6 billion is more than half of the total requested for foreign affairs.) Yet emphasis on the indispensability of US diplomacy to the nation's security interests in a troubled world might put the requests for resources for international affairs in a more favorable framework.

Even in a time of budget surpluses, competition for money in the federal budget is fierce. Administrations do not have easy choices. But, given the percentage today allotted to our foreign affairs, a closer and more perceptive look at the needs of US diplomacy seems in order.

*David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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