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Trump's plans to slash aid, diplomacy may intensify global conflicts

Mandel Ngan, AFP | Trump arrives at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, to visit the US Central Command and Specials Operations Command on February 6.

President Donald Trump has promised a “historic” increase in defence spending to be offset by cuts to the State Department and US foreign aid. But members of both parties warn that slashing aid and diplomacy may increase the risk of conflict.


“To keep America safe we must provide the men and women of the United States military with the tools they need to prevent war and – if they must – to fight and to win,” Trump told a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.

Trump has vowed to increase the US military budget by $54 billion, or 10 percent, for fiscal year 2018 while making corresponding budget cuts in other federal departments. Among those likely on the chopping block are the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service (the US tax office). But the State Department and foreign aid programmes such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are among those facing the sharpest reductions.

While the White House has yet to confirm the amount of the cuts, the Associated Press and other US media cited officials as saying plans were in the works to slash funding by 37 percent.

Trump administration officials have confirmed that foreign aid will be looking at “large reductions”, despite accounting for only a small percentage of the overall federal budget. The current annual budget for the State Department and USAID is slightly more than $50 billion, or just over 1 percent of the $3 trillion federal budget. The proposed decrease would severely curtail the ability of US programmes to provide aid around the world and force the diplomatic corps to make some tough decisions on its priorities, including cutting staff.

A spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, John Czwartacki, told the Washington Post that foreign aid programmes will be evaluated based on the benefits they offer to the United States, an approach in line with Trump’s stated “America First” approach to world affairs. More complete budget plans will be released in mid-March.

Czwartacki said that Trump had already made his intentions clear: “We are going to spend less on other countries as we reprioritise how American tax dollars are allocated,” he said.

‘Lack of understanding’

But even other members of the Republican Party were quick to push back on the plans. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said such drastic budget cuts would never be approved by Congress.

"A budget this lean would put those who serve overseas for the State Department at risk,” Graham told MSNBC.

"It's dead on arrival. It's not going to happen."

Graham also said that boosting military spending while curtailing the budget for aid and development – so-called soft power tools – would be counter-productive.

"It would be a disaster. If you take soft power off the table, then you're never going to win the war," Graham said. "What's most disturbing about the cut in the State Department's budget, it shows a lack of understanding of what it takes to win the war."

Republican Senator John McCain echoed these sentiments. “I’m very much opposed,” McCain said of the proposed cuts. “So many of those programmes are very important. They’re a popular target, but they’re very important.”

Previous Republican administrations have advocated a multi-pronged approach to military conflict. The administration of former US president George W. Bush implemented policies aimed at “winning the hearts and minds” of Iraqis even before the US-led invasion of 2003.

Less aid, more bullets

The proposed spending cuts have also come under fire from members of the US military establishment. More than 120 retired generals and admirals sent a letter to lawmakers on Monday expressing their concerns.

“We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone,” the military men wrote.

“The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

The military “will lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield, but it needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism – lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice and hopelessness”.

Letter to lawmakers

The letter went on to quote a statement made by current Defence Secretary James Mattis at a March 2013 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, shortly before he retired from the Marines.

“The more we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget,” Mattis said at the time.

“If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

The United Nations also underscores that diplomacy is key to preventing unrest. Moreover, it says prevention is more cost-effective than racing to help affected populations once they are facing a crisis.

“It has always been our belief that diplomacy is important to conflict prevention,” said Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “The secretary-general also emphasises that establishing humanitarian facilities and utilising the full range of diplomatic tools is less costly – both in terms of human life and in resources – than trying to resolve a conflict once it has started.”

Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for New American Security, who has served at both the State Department and the Pentagon, told AFP that it would be particularly misguided to slash overseas funds just as Trump is looking to reinvigorate counter-terrorism operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

He noted that even after the US military scores a victory against militants in conjunction with the local army, help is then needed to rebuild communities and prevent the militants from returning. Goldenberg said that the Pentagon has repeatedly devised counter-terrorism plans that require US agencies to work closely with local residents, only to find that the programmes lack the necessary resources.

"It's not like we have enough capacity right now," Goldenberg said.

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