Sequester cuts hurting US foreign policy

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Five percent is a significant chunk of money – almost $3 billion – but the State Department and USAID have said the cut will not force them to furlough their employees. While obviously a good thing, such a policy emphasizes that the bulk of the State Department’s and USAID’s funding does not go to their most important resource: their people.
 
We conducted a study last year that found direct U.S. employee personnel costs made up only 31 percent of the State Department’s operating budget. USAID non-program funded personnel costs were only 37 percent of its operating budget. Operating budgets pay for the day-to-day running of the agencies.
 
Together, both agencies’ personnel costs are only 8 percent of the total U.S. international affairs spending. The sequester will not force furloughs because people are such a small part of the spending on international affairs.
 
Our study, titled “Diplomacy in a Time of Scarcity,” argued that this spending on personnel costs flipped the relationship of what was important in conducting international affairs; that even though they are a small part of the budget, the people who conduct U.S. diplomacy and development are the most important foreign policy asset.
 
While our study acknowledged the growth in personnel at both the State Department and USAID over the last few years, it found that that growth did not achieve the real needs identified years ago – needs that have only been complicated by a constantly changing world. And so the report argued that the United States needs to continue to grow foreign policy personnel numbers even as the budget crisis rages.
 
Today sequester is not only preventing this growth but reversing it. Although the State Department and USAID will not furlough employees, the sequester will force them to slow hiring and leave positions empty, over time eroding the size of America’s existing diplomatic and development workforce.
 
Sequester will also affect training, a key recommendation of the study. Just having more people is not enough. The U.S. needs to give foreign policy personnel not just basic training but advanced training that makes them more effective across all areas of foreign policy. As with the number of people, such training is something the State Department has always needed more of. Sequester both emphasizes how few resources are dedicated to this problem and exacerbates it by cutting what resources are available.
 
It is also troubling that the public has heard so little from the State Department about the dire effects of the sequester. State Department officials are often afraid – unlike their counterparts in the Pentagon – to note that their job will be harder when they receive less money. Diplomats fear bringing attention to their politically weak agency and inspiring greater cuts.
 
To his credit, Secretary of State John Kerry has come out strongly for adequate funding for the State Department and USAID. Instead of shying away from budget questions, he used a recent appearance at the University of Virginia to make a strong argument for why this funding is needed to protect American national security and achieve national interests by ensuring that the United States has the right men and women in adequate numbers to implement foreign policy.
 
Instead of waiting for the next time U.S. foreign policy comes up short and then investigating what went wrong, Congress and the Obama administration should have a frank conversation about the funding that America needs and how best to spend that funding to develop and implement a smart and effective foreign policy. We believe our report starts that conversation by emphasizing the people who do that.
 
Former Ambassador Boyatt is chairman of the "Diplomacy in a Time of Scarcity" project, former Ambassador Neumann is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, and Russell Rumbaugh is a senior associate at the Stimson Center.