Congress Must Continue to Stand Firm on Soft Power

4 min read
Capitol Building of the United States
Image: Wikimedia

President Trump shook up the State Department when he fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month.

Now, as Mike Pompeo comes under scrutiny during his Senate confirmation process to become the next Secretary of State, there is still much concern and uncertainty as to how the department will function and allocate congressional funding.

During last week’s Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing, Pompeo was asked if he will carry out the priorities laid out in Congress’ budget and appropriations, to which he responded with “I know the rules.”

Just because he knows the rules, doesn’t mean he’ll abide by them.

Congress recently passed an appropriations package, known as an omnibus, securing funding for the federal government through the end of September 2018. But as they begin planning for fiscal year 2019, there is a dark cloud cast by the Trump Administration’s budget which has asked Congress to make a dangerous 30% cut to funding for diplomacy and international development.

The consequences would far be far-reaching and devastating to our international reputation.

Undoing 100 years of diplomacy

Republican President Theodore Roosevelt famously insisted that America speak softly and carry a big stick. He recognized the importance of military might, or “hard power.” But he saw equal value in America’s “soft power”—our ability to win people’s hearts and minds abroad through strong diplomacy and international cooperation.

By projecting both hard and soft power, the US has maintained its global influence for more than a century.

Today, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) use soft power to promote international peace and stability in regions of importance to the United States. It is these agencies that President Trump’s budget, if passed, would gut.

That means it is up to Congress to continue to protect our vital sources of soft power.

Why does this matter?

These efforts are more important now than ever.

Take, for example, the 785 million people on the planet who still live without reasonable access to an essential resource: water. Responding to the increasing risk of civil unrest and poor health caused by water shortages around the world, State and USAID support life-saving efforts to ensure millions of people in fragile countries have access to clean water and basic sanitation.

Promoting water access serves America’s vital interests by preventing a range of emergencies from landing on our shores. In the U.S. Global Water Strategy, the majority of federal agencies agreed “there is a growing global water crisis that may increase disease, undermine economic growth, foster insecurity and state failure, and generally reduce the capacity of countries to advance priorities that support U.S. national interests.”

Other parts of USAID fight epidemics, promote basic education, and protect human rights—all for a sliver of the federal defense budget. These investments—and the diplomatic relationships we build in the process—foster ideals of freedom and prosperity.

Cutting funds for these efforts would be penny wise and pound foolish, especially when America’s reputation is at stake.

A recent Pew Research Center survey shows just 22% of 37 countries surveyed have confidence that President Trump will do the right thing in international affairs. This lack of confidence threatens relationships with key allies and jeopardizes our national security and economic prosperity.

As a Coloradan, I feel it is critical for Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet to recognize that the benefits of soft power are real. Our state relies heavily upon good relations with other countries for our economy and job creation. In 2013, international trade supported one in five Colorado jobs. And in 2015, over 10,000 international students were enrolled in Colorado universities. Those students alone contributed $352 million to the Colorado economy.

Our nation’s strength is not merely measured in numbers of troops, but by our ability to engage in meaningful negotiations, establish relationships with key countries, and broker global peace.

With proper investment, America can continue eradicating poverty, improving the quality of life for women and girls, and upholding our role as arbiters of peace and goodwill.

Given the dangers facing the United States, Congress should ensure that the International Affairs Budget – which includes funding for clean water, adequate toilets and hygiene programs – is allocated at least $60 billion, which is what was allocated in the previous fiscal year.

Because while it might not come naturally to a president who rose to global fame by repeating “You’re fired,” speaking softly is as vital to the national interest as ever.