Response to Secretaries of State Letter on The Importance of a Strong and Effective International Affairs Budget

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)


The November 14, 2011 letter addressed to the Members of Congress urging them to “support a strong and effective International Affairs Budget,” and further stressing that “these programs are critical to America’s global leadership and represent strategic investments in our nation’s security and prosperity,” is most timely.

During the most trying times in recent history for the State Department, from 2001 to 2005, more than one thousand new positions were absorbed by assignments to Afghanistan and Iraq; at the same time, there was a shortage of more than one thousand positions elsewhere around the world. The budget cuts mandated by Congress in the 1990s for overseas embassy operations, and the subsequent terrorist attacks and threat of attacks against U.S. embassies gave rise to an increased budget for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and almost eight hundred new positions related to security, yet no real increase for our foreign affairs programs.

The establishment in 2007 of the new House Appropriations Subcommittee on State Foreign Operations, and a similar Senate committee, directly places more emphasis on State Department foreign operations and programs such as USAID, the Peace Corps, and the Millennium Challenge Account. Hence, budgeting for the Foreign Affairs programs should no longer take a backseat to other government agencies. It is crucial that the structures which carry out U.S. foreign affairs programs be funded adequately so we are not perceived around the world as isolationists.

In my meetings with sub-Saharan African leaders while I was U.S. ambassador, and subsequent interviews with African leaders for my book, I heard repeatedly that the United States is considered a “fair-weather friend.” The U.S. government needs to have a consistent, dependable foreign policy, including foreign assistance programs for sub-Saharan Africa, that aim to rebuild trust and friendships.

In the book “When the White House Calls” I deal with our bilateral relations with the host countries, and concerns about our lack of foreign affairs funding. I also share some insights from Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s testimony during the 1995 foreign affairs budget hearings. I have excerpted several passages from, Our Foreign Policy chapter, regarding the former secretary’s testimony.

“We should not forget that foreign assistance is a real bargain for American taxpayers.” Secretary Christopher went on to add, “Recent polls suggest that the American people think that up to 25 percent of federal spending goes to foreign assistance, and that 8 percent should be the maximum. In fact, we spend less than 1 percent of the total federal budget on foreign assistance—about 12 cents a day for each American citizen—in contrast to about 18 percent still spent on defense.”

Asserting that our “diplomatic ‘field offices’ abroad also constitute an invaluable early-warning intelligence system,” the Secretary added “their rapid-fire political, military, and economic reporting is essential to the crisis-prevention work of Washington national security decision-makers.”

Responding to questions about whether our foreign assistance made any real  difference in developing countries and what would happen if we just stopped giving it, Secretary Christopher responded by saying, “Both we and they would suffer. Our foreign assistance programs are intended to promote the kind of economic growth and political stability that are critical to U.S. national security and economic well-being. Failing to provide aid to developing countries would therefore jeopardize our  national security.”

The Secretary pointed out that “it costs a hundred times as much to deal with humanitarian crises as it does to prevent them.” For example, it cost the United States more than $2 billion to deal with Somalia, and $1 billion to address Rwanda’s problems.

Secretary Christopher, under pressure from Congress, recommended that USAID close down twenty-eight missions abroad, shutter ten U.S. Information Agency (USIA) offices, and cut more than three thousand job positions; USIA’s activities and programs merged with the State Department programs.

Secretary Christopher and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asserted that the United States could still maintain a strong diplomatic presence overseas. Secretary Christopher talked about “the principle of universality,” wherein the United States must maintain an official diplomatic presence in every country where it is welcome. I would have gone further and said that we should maintain a presence in every country that is a voting member at the United Nations.

Operating leaner in carrying out our foreign affairs was the goal of Congress and State Department. Cutting resources for such basic programs as books, libraries, research tools, and an American Corner filled with reading and educational material about our country gave radical imams the edge by allowing them to take over as the main source of education in many Muslim countries. Only where a vestige of colonialism still existed were some books and educational material still available for secular studies.

The United States has pushed the “electronic highway” as the new paradigm to replace the physical experience of touching, feeling, and reading a book or even the social experience of visiting a library. But in the less developed countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where computers and dependable power are not readily available, such an approach to learning is limited, if not impossible. Without books, students in these countries wouldn’t have a chance.

The total savings in eliminating the USIA libraries, reference centers, and associated cultural activities were estimated to be $9.1 million annually—a minuscule amount to keep open the main highway of knowledge.

While the State Department allowed the budget cuts to reduce or eliminate the U.S. diplomatic presence in a number of countries, the Diplomatic Security Service suddenly saw a dramatic increase in funding to strengthen security at the remaining embassies. This money would have been better spent on prevention in the first place, by having an American presence on the ground providing good intelligence and reporting. A continued presence in Sudan and Somalia, for example, would have allowed us to engage directly with the leaders in one country and the warlords in the other, rather than having to do so peripherally. Part of the problem with our foreign policy is that we will not engage people we consider our enemy, and in a number of cases have used our military might to resolve political and ideological differences. Fighting doesn’t always provide for a long-lasting, peaceful outcome. I truly believe that having embassy representation in every country to engage the leaders is better than having CIA operatives or military troops on the ground, as they are often perceived as destabilizers, invaders, occupiers, or infidels.

I concur with the letter’s summation, “Now is not the time for America to retreat from the world.” A properly funded foreign affairs program is very vital to our security interests. The decision makers in Washington do not believe the Salafist jihadist movement is an eminent threat. Africa is half-way around the world, but for al-Qaeda and other insurgents, America is only a door-step away.

I truly hope that the Members of Congress will read the letter signed by the former Secretaries of State, and act appropriately to protect our nation’s interests.