Trump's global challenge: Balancing defence and diplomacy

US President Donald Trump salutes as he walks to Air Force One Image copyright Getty Images

President Donald Trump has said he will boost the United States' defence budget by $54bn (£44bn). But does this have to be at the expense of the country's current commitments to diplomacy and "soft power"?

"To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." So, reportedly, commented Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill at a Washington dinner in 1945.

This was hardly profound, yet it did underscore the fairly commonplace notion that diplomacy is better than conflict and that war should ultimately be the last resort.

Churchill's comment comes to mind as the Trump administration sets out to secure a significant increase in US defence spending by cutting back on a number of other government programmes, not least key areas of the State Department's budget.

The crucial linkage between spending on defence and that on diplomacy is clear to many in today's military.

The current US Defence Secretary James Mattis, while still a general in charge of US Central Command, in 2013, spoke out against cuts to the State Department budget, noting that "if you don't fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition".

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Image caption The current US Defence Secretary James Mattis earlier spoke out against potential cuts to the State Department

His remark was cited last month, when 120 former US senior military officers published a letter urging the Trump administration to reconsider its planned cutbacks.

"We know from our service in uniform," they said, "that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone - from confronting violent extremist groups like Isis [the so-called Islamic State] in the Middle East and North Africa to preventing pandemics like Ebola and stabilising weak and fragile states that can lead to greater instability."

The letter underscored the crucial role of foreign expenditure in preventing crises in the first place.

"The State Department, USAid, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies," it said, "are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm's way."

Few serious analysts doubt that the US needs to spend more on defence.

The debate in many ways is about how much more and about what types of capability any new money will provide.

For many commanders, readiness is a much more immediate issue, and that is certainly where a good tranche of any additional dollars will have to go.

But given the congressionally-imposed constraints on the US deficit, more money for defence means less elsewhere.

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Image caption Congress has sought to curb the US deficit

The State Department seems a particular target for the new Trump administration - reinforcing the view prompted by new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's relative invisibility, that for Mr Trump, who seems to like being surrounded by former generals, diplomacy is very much a second order affair.

In part, this represents the ideological bow-wave of the Trump team: a pre-disposition to oppose multilateralism and talking shops of all kinds.

In practical foreign policy terms - at least so far - President Trump seems to differ from his predecessor mostly in style rather than substance.

He has rallied to Nato, the Russia re-set is on hold or perhaps off the table altogether.

In terms of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, President Trump has backed a vague approach towards a negotiated solution, and US policy in Iraq and Syria seems to be a more muscular version of what the Obama administration was already doing.

So the more ideological voices close to the president who are sceptical about the current institutions of the international order and of America's place in it may well be seeking to demonstrate their differences with the Obama-era by cutting back on UN spending and a variety of other projects funded from the Department of State.

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Image caption US aid spending constitutes about 1% of the most recent proposed budget

Foreign aid in particular is in the budgetary cross-hairs.

But just what constitutes the US aid budget, and on what is it spent?

The veteran US defence analyst Prof Tony Cordesman recently published an eloquent commentary whose title, Before You Cut Foreign Aid to Fund Defence, Consider Where It Goes and What it Does for US Troops and National Security, rather gives away its essential message.

Prof Cordesman makes clear that, in President Obama's fiscal year 2017 budget, foreign aid encompassed some $42.4bn (£34.3bn) - ie just over 1% of the total budget proposal.

Some 40% of the aid budget goes to support countries where US troops are fighting and to efforts to counter terrorism and narcotics.

Prof Cordesman notes that US aid "is vital to reaching and to keeping a hard-won peace in Colombia, and to fighting narcotics in Mexico".

"There would be little chance," he says, "of a US victory in Afghanistan or Iraq without such aid, and the United States would face critical problems in playing an active role in Syria.

"This form of aid is the major tangible support the United States provides to Ukraine," he says.

And the figures illustrate "just how critical such aid is to the security and stability of allies like Israel, Egypt, and Jordan".

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Image caption North Korea is just one of the security challenges facing the United States

Equally strong arguments can be made for economic and development assistance as for direct security assistance.

At stake is not just practical support for specific programmes but also a wider vision of America's place in the world.

President Trump has barely begun to grapple with the key security challenges facing the United States.

Many certainly have a military dimension - the need to re-equip the armed forces and improve deterrence.

But will the crisis with North Korea be resolved by military means alone?

No amount of US intervention in Syria can rebuild the country, short of a wider agreement involving a number of players with whom the Trump administration would probably rather not deal.

What about fragile societies such as Pakistan, or Egypt? Military assistance alone is surely not enough.

Placing too many resources in the military basket has disadvantages as well.

"If the only tool you have is a hammer," as the saying goes, "there is a tendency to see every problem as if it were a nail."

The advice to President Trump from a galaxy of security experts, military and civil alike, seems to be to stop hammering and, yes, to increase the defence budget but not at the expense of vital spending abroad.

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