Even while the situation in Libya is leading most news cycles—along with the nuclear crises in Japan—no one seems quite sure what to make of the United States’ involvement. We’re participating, but not leading? Erm, well, we were leading the mission, but now it’s in NATO’s hands? We’re enforcing a United Nations decision in another sovereign nation’s territory? Really?
Why does it seem so strange? Well, for the first time in years, the U.S. seriously committed to diplomatic channels before passing the ammunition. We built a strong international coalition and broad global consensus before engaging in military action. If it feels novel, well, that’s because it represents a definite shift in strategy. All of this is new turf. The nations’ pundits have been hashing this out for a little over a week now, with no consensus on what it means. I’ve got a hunch that this debate will last a while, because we’ll be seeing more of this sort of intervention in coming years. We’d better start thinking about how our relationship to the world is changing.
Let’s start with what it means in the short-term. Given America’s shaky fiscal footing, this sort of caution is probably the “new normal.” After more than $1 trillion in deficit spending on wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, we can’t afford to use our military power as recklessly anymore. Just look at the comparison: these wars ultimately cost us (and counting) around $2 billion each week, while early cost estimates for the action in Libya are between $100 and $300 million weekly. Increased NATO participation should drive these costs down even more.
What does this new approach mean in the long-term? Well, if we’re going to rely more heavily on our diplomatic corps to keep us safe, we’ll need to invest more resources in these institutions and the people who staff them. As it stands, we spend only 1% of the federal budget on international affairs. We have more people in our nation’s military bands than we currently have in the State Department. Unfortunately, Congress is looking to cut as much as 30% of international affairs funding this year. This would be a massive mistake.
Remember the cost comparison between Libya and our other recent wars—cutting our diplomatic resources now will cost us in the long run. As Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen recently put it, “The more significant the cuts, the longer military operations will take, and the more…lives are at risk!” We can’t have the benefits of increased diplomacy without paying for them. The good news is that diplomats are much cheaper than jet fighters. The even better news it that in the long run, investment in our international affairs institutions ought to more than pay for themselves.
Not only does diplomacy save us from costly military entanglements, it also helps our economy grow. By negotiating trade agreements and helping to build foreign markets for American-made goods, U.S. diplomats support millions of jobs here in our country. The AP reported last week that American democracy promotion efforts trained and guided leaders of the Arab Spring. With any luck, democratization in the Middle East will lead to more and freer trade in the region. With this and other efforts, we can make the world safer for democracy and for free markets.
These aren’t far-off dreams. The effects are right here at home. Take Illinois, for example. The United States Global Leadership Coalition reports that Illinois exported $54 billion worth of goods in 2008. The International Trade Administration estimates that 25% of jobs in Illinois depend on exports. Every local economy is now global, and every state stands to gain similarly…if we prepare them for it. Diplomacy can help us to grow these numbers and sell beyond our borders in the future, but only if we invest in international affairs in the present.
This should be welcome news for Americans who are still waiting for Washington leadership on job creation. Neither party has made jobs a priority this year, in part because of distractions in the international arena. Fortunately, these “distractions” suggest a way towards a safer, more affordable, and more prosperous future. Now is emphatically not the time to cut back on our investment and engagement in the international community. It’s the best way to create jobs across the United States, save money on defense, and build a more secure global position for America.