Measure Twice, Cut Once: Prioritizing Diplomatic and Development Missions In A Time of Fiscal Constraints
The newly-released Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) makes a strong case for resources for American diplomacy and development. While the report is burdened by global realities – somehow every problem seems to require that State and USAID address it – two priorities stand out. The QDDR pays particular attention to the need to strengthen and build capabilities for the traditional mission of economic development and governance as well as for the newer mission of preventing/resolving conflict and assisting in recovery from conflict in weak states.
The proposed structural changes and reforms will require resources to be effective. But the QDDR only nods in the direction of the reality the State Department and USAID face today: budget restraint. Deficit hawks are bearing down on the federal budget. With even sacrosanct social security, defense, and taxes being discussed, there’s no place to hide. Mathematically, getting the deficit and the debt under control means everything has to be “on the table.” And politically, a deal - if it comes - is only possible if everything is “on the table.”
Cutting a budget as small as international affairs makes at best a token contribution to lowering the deficit. That has never stopped the Congress. Diplomats and “foreign aid” have always been an easy target in the Congress, as the incoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has signaled. And the two major deficit commissions have left the door open to cuts as well. Simpson/Bowles has some specifics while Rivlin/Domenici simply lumps foreign affairs budgets in with all “non-defense discretionary” spending freezes.
In the face of this reality, the QDDR does the best it can arguing a clear, strong case for robust spending on diplomacy and development as a more effective and less costly way to achieve national security than defense spending. We strongly support rebalancing the tools of statecraft to give greater weight to our civilian institutions, but a purely defensive posture is unlikely to be successful. So it may be strategic to set aside the broad, global missions in the QDDR (and the President’s development policy and national security strategy) and describe instead the results of cuts so a rational debate can be had. What would a slimmed down State and USAID look like? What would get done - and what would not get done - as a result?
How might the Executive Branch and Congress start to think about those narrower missions? In the coming months, BFAD will tackle this agenda of defining mission priorities and making tough choices. For now, here is some food for thought, if not proposals, to get the discussion started. (Note: list is not exhaustive; some could be combined, while others are mutually exclusive.)
What Do We Do: Stop Being All Things to All People
Set a priority on missions that defend our core interests, for example:
- Security first: Concentrate on assistance for security sector, police, and strategic allies
- Diplomacy first: Do the core diplomacy, let the private sector do media, economic growth, civil engagement; let private voluntary organizations do health and humanitarian response
- Humanitarian actions first: Focus on life saving interventions that speak to our values
Tighten our definition of what we do best and leverage comparative advantages of other nations for the rest, for example:
- Global health programs
- Feeding the hungry
- Supporting development of functioning financial markets and the rule of law necessary for economic growth
Pick the countries we choose to help:
- Invest in success: Act like a venture capital fund, with rigorous evaluation, to get best result for the most people, or
- Support the neediest: Focus on the least developed and least able to help themselves; rely on private investment for others, or.
- Build alliances: Help strategic allies and let others take care of the rest.
Drop the “relics,” programs that are OBE (diplo-speak for “overtaken by events”), for example:
- Military assistance to Israel/Egypt, who have plenty and are not likely to go to war
- Radio and TV around the world: it is unclear who is listening/watching, and whether it makes a difference
- Promoting American exports: Let the private sector do what is in their interests and eliminate food aid that primarily serves as a U.S. agricultural subsidy
How Do We Do It: Work Smart and Do More with Less
Choose how to provide development assistance, for example:
- Leverage partners: Go multilateral and close down our bilateral programs, which are small compared to the global total and private flows, or
- Go it alone with real money: End our multilateral assistance programs
Leverage the private sector, for example:
- Support innovation: Partner with private companies with technology that can make a difference
- Support private investments in developing countries
Streamline our presence by, for example:
- Cutting back other departments at posts overseas
- Reducing the number of posts and using more regional platforms, travel, and communications technologies
Accept more risk:
- Implement the QDDR recommendations to do proper risk assessment, which could lead to reduced costs