Maintaining diplomacy during fiscal uncertainty

October 26, 2012 By Zach Silberman

With talk of a looming “fiscal cliff,” the development and diplomacy community may face some harsh realities over the next year.  Most importantly, how are we going to deal with the budget situation while sustaining the recent gains to rebuild our civilian capacity championed by Secretaries of State Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton during their tenures?

One idea is to focus on maintaining the strength of the foreign affairs personnel, and if budget reductions come to pass, look at reductions in programs and not personnel. This idea was part of a plan offered by a joint venture of the Stimson Center and the American Academy of Diplomacy.  The report, Diplomacy in a Time of Scarcity, was released Thursday and builds on recommendations made by the same group of organizations in 2008 about expanding the human capital capabilities of the development agencies. The 2012 report goes further in offering recommendations on how to maintain our global engagement within this budget environment.

As the United States enters a “transition environment” with the end of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a fear the budget crisis will decrease the resources necessary to conduct diplomacy in these countries and maintain the hard-fought gains of the military.  One of the recommendations this report outlines is if reductions in the International Affairs Budget are necessary, they should be programmatic cuts and not personnel cuts.

While the report and yesterday’s discussion did not offer up specifics on particular programs, it argues that “reductions in foreign affairs personnel to the point where overseas posts would have to be closed involves real costs.  There could be no more visible metaphor for ‘America in Decline’ than the closing of some of our embassies.”

Ambassador Thomas Pickering, a member of the advisory committee of this effort as well chairman of the Benghazi Accountability Review Board, kept focusing on the importance of the people in diplomacy, arguing that “if you are going to cut budgets in diplomacy, preserve the people.” That sentiment was echoed by Ambassador Thomas Boyatt, the project’s chairman, stating that, “People are more important than programs.”

Steps have already been taken to enhance our development and diplomacy goals and improve our capabilities, particularly through the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR).  And while there has been an uptick in the growth of foreign policy personnel in the government, the growth is still slower than hoped for by the 2008 report.

Congress will still need to make tough decisions when they come back for the lame-duck session, and regardless of which plan they choose, it is important that they ensure that our global engagement is robust and ready to meet the looming global challenges.