Plenty has been written about the potentially devastating impact of the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the State Department and USAID. Most observers have focused on how these agencies stabilize nations after war, fight epidemic diseases before they reach our shores, and support countries that fight terrorism and other security threats within their borders. But these proposed cuts are dangerous for another reason: they could help bring about dueling U.S. foreign policies—one made by generals and another made by diplomats.
The cuts alone won’t muddle America’s voice in the world. But they could tip a long-running debate over the role of civilian agencies in determining U.S. foreign policy. This issue hasn’t gotten much, or really any, high-level attention in recent years, because it hinges on the highly bureaucratic question of how the U.S. government organizes itself to support foreign security forces.
Though the U.S. has worked with and funded foreign forces for decades, this kind of assistance became an integral and increasingly common tool of U.S. national security and foreign policy in the years after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Between 2001 and 2015, annual spending on security sector assistance jumped from under $6 billion to almost $20 billion, an increase of nearly 250 percent. Although the State Department is the lead agency on foreign assistance, most of the increase went to the Defense Department. In 2001, DoD was responsible for only 17 percent of all security-sector assistance funding. By 2015, it owned almost 60 percent of it.
There was no grand strategy behind this massive and role-muddying increase. As the U.S. fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress granted the Defense Department a vast array of one-off funds to address urgent gaps and security needs. Over the years, these workarounds and ad-hoc funding arrangements became more or less permanent.
The result of this haphazard process is a dense web of interlocking responsibilities, funding, and activities spanning numerous agencies and at least 46 bureaus and offices. These disparate bureaucracies have to navigate more than 100 separate funding authorities, each with its own purpose, reporting requirements, and timelines. No single entity is empowered to coordinate these different moving and unwieldy parts or to focus on security-sector-wide interests and policy, to cut across silos.
All this has left U.S. security-sector assistance efforts operating without clear foreign-policy priorities or objectives, running at cross-purposes, risking U.S. national interests, and potentially wasting billions of dollars a year.
When Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, last year, lawmakers made clear that they weren’t happy with how all of this had been going. The 2018 version of the annual defense bill included groundbreaking reforms to the Pentagon’s system for administering security-sector assistance, addressing many longstanding issues with how the Defense Department decides to use its resources, tracks what it spends and where, and determines whether its investments are worthwhile. These changes are unquestionably a positive step in making this foreign assistance more accountable and, potentially, more effective.
But the NDAA applies only to the Defense Department. Absent reforms to how security-sector assistance is managed across the entire government, and particularly at the State Department, the NDAA is unlikely to have its intended impact. Now comes a budget proposal whose spending cuts would require the shuttering of embassies, and we could be looking at dueling U.S. foreign policies.
Balancing competing interests and determining what matters to the United States is the job of diplomats. Foreign assistance, and particularly security-related assistance, is one of the more visible and proactive tools the U.S. government has to advance those interests. This most recent NDAA made clear the need for the Defense Department to coordinate with the State Department and deploy its assistance in service of broader U.S. foreign policy. But an understaffed and poorly structured State Department will struggle to articulate, assert, and enforce foreign policy priorities, while constantly responding to an ever-expanding range of Pentagon assistance plans.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department—a proactive organization—must continue its work apace. But in doing so, it will create de facto policy through its assistance decisions. Very quickly, the U.S. government faces the potential that generals will drive foreign policy.
There are a number of ways the Trump administration could prevent this from happening, without significant cost to the taxpayer:
First, it is essential that the executive branch clarify the many reasons the U.S. has an interest in providing security-sector assistance to foreign countries, and use that as criteria to prioritize countries and issues. Providing assistance to gain and maintain access to a base or to help another country fight terrorists are two valid but very different reasons to send taxpayer money overseas. Identifying those reasons, and which countries are most essential to U.S. interests, is a necessary step to ensuring that those 46 offices are working off the same set of goals.
Second, the administration should require every agency and sub-agency involved in security-sector assistance to create a Washington-based focal point to participate in interagency meetings and keep informed on the scope of that agency’s security-sector-related work.
Third, the State Department should be affirmed as the lead security-sector-assistance agency and given the support to do the job better. One way to do this is to empower and resource the Bureau for Political-Military Affairs to oversee planning for security-sector policy and serve as the hub for interagency coordination. Doing so will be essential if the State Department is to provide meaningful policy oversight on the Defense Department’s expanded funding, especially if the administration moves forward with significant cuts to civilian agencies.
Fourth, at embassies, ambassadors should identify one person who is empowered to coordinate all security-sector-related work, including that of the Departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Treasury, and more. In addition, the State Department should build on a good innovation in last year’s NDAA reforms: requiring the Defense Department to professionalize its security-cooperation workforce. Similarly, embassy State Department security-sector personnel in high-priority countries should receive more and better training.
Finally, all agencies should be directed to immediately begin tracking how much they are spending on security-sector assistance annually in each country. Without such data, the U.S. government cannot protect against waste or misuse of taxpayer funds. The Trump administration also should begin building better technological solutions for tracking and sharing information between and within agencies.
In Untangling the Web: A Blueprint for Reforming American Security Sector Assistance, I provide greater detail on these and other recommendations for how the new administration can ensure that its assistance to foreign forces is advancing U.S. national interests and responsibly using tax dollars.
Even if the Trump administration succeeds in cutting funds for basic operations at the State Department and USAID, security-sector assistance is not likely to disappear, or even diminish greatly. The question is whether this assistance will be used to serve U.S. foreign policy, or whether it ends up determining it.