“Defund” the Military, Fund Diplomacy 

Gabriel Coffey

Calls to “defund the police” have echoed throughout the United States this summer. This is a great and worthy cause. Yet, what about doing the same to the military? What about cutting funding and reallocating resources for the very institution that has destabilized a myriad of countries and killed innocent citizens? Some may sigh at such a suggestion, but many fail to remember that the United States has an alternate line of defense, once more prolific than the military: the diplomatic core. 

Author of “A Gentleman in Moscow,” Amor Towles once said, “After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration but our reconsideration — and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.”

Diplomacy is no different. It demands that countries promulgate peace by acting intentionally and multilaterally. It requires that you consider your allies and enemies in their entirety. It requires that you serve both your ideals and the ideals of others. It is a thin line to walk, but when done properly, peace and prosperity can be served. 

Yet, the United States Department of Defense and State Department have toiled under the unnerving supposition that an aggressive and formidable military won’t need to be accompanied by an equally resilient front line of sweet talkers and go-getters. As the military budget has ballooned in recent decades, we have seen the diplomatic core, specifically the foreign service, fade. 

This poses a threat to the influence the United States exudes on its allies and enemies. Military spending will continue to run awry if there is not a concerted effort to invest in the foreign service. As General Jim Mattis said, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully then I need to buy more ammunition.” Thus, the complementary nature of the two institutions, military and diplomacy, is established. Knowing this, we can infer that an increase in foreign service spending could offset some of the enormous military budget, if used properly.

Yet, foreign service participation has been falling. Since 2000 the number of participants in the foreign service entry exam has been cut in half. This reflects a growing trend of people staying out of a world that does not act as it once did. Between 1974 and 2014, the number of career diplomats holding assistant-secretary positions and above at the State Department shrunk from 60% to 30%. Then, over six years, much of which occurred under President Donald Trump, the number of career diplomats dropped to 8%.  

This is worrying, for it means that those making decisions on how to promote and maintain democracy and justice in the world are not qualified. Thus, one ought to wonder why there is a test for foreign service officers if so many high-level appointees circumvent it? Some of this can be chalked up to the excess wealth one needs to be an ambassador to a rich western European country. Entertaining foreign emissaries and diplomats costs money. Yet, with many high up positions in the State Department going unfilled, it would serve this country well to fill the 40 ambassador positions that are currently “vacant.” With many capable career diplomats out there, it would be advisable that an administration that is so weak on foreign policy pack those positions with career diplomats. 

Yet, much of the State Department’s demise can be drawn in an inverse correlation with military spending. Being a global superpower isn’t simply about having a large military, but rather how you promote global multilateralism. In a world that has shifted away from such methods of diplomacy in recent decades, it would be advantageous for the United States to promote a resurgence of global cooperation to counter Chinese influence and bring global issues like climate change to the forefront of the world stage. An emphasis on “law and order,” as President Trump has championed, abroad and at home, will hurt global trade and thus hurt our import-dependent economy. Bolster the military all you want, President Trump, it will only serve to entrench our increasingly isolated country all the more. 

With President Dwight Eisenhower warning of the military going awry nearly 75 years ago, I sometimes feel like George Kennan when he said, “One sometimes feels a guest of one’s time and not a member of its household.” Yet, we exist today and the issue of global cooperation and military glut still stands firmly at the center of the American conscious. 

A culture of using force over cooperation has also reared its ugly head in the streets this summer. The deleterious plunder by police against Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) speaks to the government’s willingness to treat its own citizens as they do their enemies with a legally protected and fully funded domestic army. This begs the question of how the United States government can productively cultivate peace and harmony in the world if we can’t even treat our own people with dignity and respect.

Both at home and abroad, the United States must do better. The externalities of war are profound. The belabored effort of preventing them is no doubt massive. Yet, the upside for promoting peace and cooperation is far greater than bolstering a war machine. Such an investment would set a precedent for the rest of the world to follow. The United States can set the terms for future international negotiations by reallocating resources from the military to the State Department. In doing this, we, the United States of America, can lead, not by force, but by conviction. The conviction that says my worries and cares are not merely mine but are ours. That we are not isolated, but secure, in this volatile world. Isn’t that what everyone longs for?