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Carrots and sticks: Reprioritize weapons budgeting

Military vehicles with $100 bill background
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Samuel is a doctoral candidate studying public health and American foreign policy at Columbia University. She is also a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

American military supremacy is unmatched, both in might and expense. Congress is prepared to spend $886 billion on defense this year, in line with decades of federal investments meant to strengthen deterrence and military capabilities. Defense spending may exceed non-defense spending by over $100 billion – a clear demonstration of America’s muscular approach to foreign policy.

This year’s defense budget includes $315 billion earmarked for Major Weapons Systems, or what Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin refers to as “highly lethal precision weapons.” Over a third of all defense appropriations are spent on weapons that include hypersonic missiles, advanced nuclear submarines, and continued development of the B-21 bomber program. At the same time, private defense contractors are set to enjoy rising profits as the beneficiaries of America’s force-first defensive posture.

But the nature of warfare is changing. Guns and missiles are the weapons of yesteryear. However formidable, they are not enough to keep America and our allies safe from the most pressing threats. Instead, our nation needs to realize that the threats we face in the 21st century are unprecedented and require novel diplomatic tools of defense. Congressional leaders must invest more in diplomacy if America is to remain free and safe.

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Israel, one of the United States’ closest allies and the largest recipient of American military assistance since World War II, was not kept safe on Oct. 7. 2023, despite its possession of the most sophisticated weaponry in the Middle East. The Iron Dome failed with catastrophic consequences despite $3 billion in support from the United States. Meanwhile Israel’s indiscriminate use of American-supplied bombs has been met with international outcry and levels of civilian casualties not seen this century.

At the same time, the Biden administration’s $46 billion in military aid to Ukraine has inflamed already tense budget negotiations with congressional Republicans and has produced only a challenging stalemate with Russia, despite the inclusion of controversial cluster munitions in the arms package. And still, any resolution that might materialize to end the conflict will likely involve the ceding of formerly sovereign Ukrainian territory.

These sticks are not getting the job done. Diplomatic carrots, in the form of economic engagement and foreign aid, are better tools for protecting Americans at home and abroad.

Adversarial competition with China is the most pressing threat facing the United States. That threat has been most effectively tackled through commercial pacts like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement designed to limit China’s economic influence across the Pacific. America is already using the diplomatic weaponry that will keep us safe for future decades.

Diplomatic carrots also function to make weapons of force more effective by providing credible intelligence for deployment and targeting. Such intelligence has been historically and effectively shared among allies through collaborative intelligence partnerships. The Five Eyes Intelligence Oversight and Review Council, for example, is comprised of The United States’ closest English-speaking allies, who have successfully worked together since World War II to protect democracy globally. Their collaboration is a critical check on China’s growing influence.

These intelligence-sharing partnerships strengthen the United States against all possible threats, including infectious ones. China’s failure to share critical epidemiological data slowed the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and obfuscated the origins of the virus. The still ongoing pandemic serves as a reminder that not all of America’s problems can be tackled militarily.

America’s diplomatic fixation on violent weaponry undermines our national security. However, Congress can act to make us safer by strengthening the State Department and giving it the nonviolent tools to keep Americans safe. Congress must fully fund, if not exceed, President Biden’s budget request for the State Department, including the 10 percent budgetary increase for USAID, the agency responsible for administering US foreign aid.

The $11 billion in USAID’s budget earmarked for global health security is a miniscule amount compared to already-funded expensive weapons systems, but critical for preventing the next pandemic. An additional $4 billion for infrastructure development in the Indo-Pacific counters China’s influence in the region and cultivates new allies who might otherwise be drawn into the debt trap of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

It goes without saying that Congress should continue to support our military and the heroes who keep us all safe. But Congress’ failure to better support our military with diplomatic weaponry both undermines American military supremacy and increases the danger our armed servicemembers face abroad. We are all less safe when the diplomatic arsenal is left dangerously underfunded.

Congress must act swiftly. The recently passed continuing resolution mandates an early March deadline to fund all foreign operations before a government shutdown threatens America’s capacity to pursue global peace. A fully funded USAID and State Department are the carrots that the United States needs to complement our unmatched militarized stick.

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