“Diplomacy in a time of scarcity”

A new report on funding American diplomacy argues that people are more important than programs. Budget cuts in State and USAID should fall on programs, not personnel, the report says.

The American Academy of Diplomacy and the Stimson Center, authors of the report, make the “prudent working assumption” that the overall federal budget will be reduced, and that the budget for international affairs will be reduced in parallel. The reductions should fall on programs, which can be quickly restored, and not on personnel, who take “years if not decades” to replace. The report warns against falling into a “transition trap” like the personnel cutbacks of the 1990s, which left American diplomacy ill-prepared to deal with the international environment that emerged after the Cold War.

Program cuts affect only the programs involved, say the authors, but “personnel reductions damage policy across the board.” The report leaves to State and USAID the task of identifying which programs to cut.

The report points out that total personnel costs at State and AID are about $4 billion in a $55 billion budget. Even severe cuts “would barely move the needle downward.” The corollary is that adding personnel—and the report calls for adding 722 positions at State and AID, to complete the hiring program begun in 2009—would barely the move the needle up.

The report provides considerable detail on staffing changes over the past five years, showing how personnel are distributed by rank and specialty, how new positions have been used, and where gaps remain. Recommendations emphasize the need for trained personnel and propose budget and policy changes to raise skill levels at State and USAID.

The report quotes Walter Lippmann: Diplomacy is “the shield of the Republic.” The stronger the shield, says the conclusion, the less often the sword is required.

The whole report, titled “Diplomacy in a Time of Scarcity,” is less than fifty pages. The executive summary and recommendations are three pages. One can hope that the agencies will be as efficient in choosing their programs as the authors were in choosing their words.

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