By Marcus Allmon
On August 2, 2011, President Barack Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011, thereby preventing the United States from hitting its debt limit. Part of this deal reached with Congress included an either/or proposition: either a so-called “super committee” reaches an agreement on legislation to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years, or across-the-board spending cuts to similarly reduce the deficit start automatically. The latter scenario, popularly known as sequestration, has come to pass. Its prescribed cuts are divided equally between defense spending and non-defense discretionary spending, which includes all non-mandatory expenses (so Social Security remains untouched). For the fiscal year 2013, the cuts total $85.4 billion, with similar cuts taking place each year through 2021.
Sequestration was never supposed to happen. Its effects were considered so undesirable—automatic spending cuts that could not be controlled or targeted—that even a deadlocked Washington would have to reach a compromise before it started. Talk has now shifted from how to avoid sequestration to how to best manage it. The International Affairs Budget (IAB), allocated to the Department of State, is a prime example of how discretionary spending cuts are undermining the United States’ global posture.
The “carrot-and-stick” idiom is used frequently in international relations theories to stand for state-sponsored benefits and coercion, respectively, to optimize outcomes. This model came to be known as “hard power” when Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. The use of soft power calls for an alignment of interests rather than subjugation as a result of coercion or benefit. Soft power is undeniably attractive; it focuses on the attainment of goals without the loss of blood and (much) treasure. Through diplomacy and humanitarian aid, the Department of State is the arm of the United States that most effectively wields soft power, and its budget is in rough shape.
According to the U.S Global Leadership Coalition, the IAB reached a high of $56.4 billion in 2010. After having $54.9 billion in 2012, it shrank to $52.1 billion in 2013 due to sequestration. These numbers are slightly misleading. Each year, billions of dollars in the IAB is allocated to overseas contingency operations (OCO). OCO is war-related funding, considered “temporary” and “extraordinary,” to meet the demands of operating in the frontline states of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Without OCO funding factored in, the IAB was $51.3 billion in 2010, $43.7 billion in 2012, and $41.5 billion in 2013, a starker decline in diplomatic capacity.
Without sequestration, the IAB for 2013 would have been roughly 5 percent higher. What would that difference buy the United States? Since sequestration is across-the-board, cuts were made to soft power stalwarts such as global health programs, the United States Agency for International Development and refugee relief. While the Senate Budget Resolution for 2014 calls for an increase to $45.6 billion in non-OCO funding to the IAB, the House version further cuts it to $38.7 billion.
If sequestration is here to stay, then it can be called nothing but a political failure that harms the United States. The IAB is just one example; if $1.2 trillion is going to be cut one way or another, there are certainly smarter ways to do it than blunt, across-the-board cuts. For more on the value of soft power, I recommend General David Petraeus’ recent columnon its past and possibly future successes.
A graduate of the University of Virginia, Marcus Allmon is a student of government and philosophy.