US President Donald J. Trump’s draft budget, which proposes to increase defense spending by slashing funding for the US Department of State and foreign aid, would imperil national security efforts and weaken the US stance on the world stage, according to two US lawmakers—one a Democrat and the other a Republican.
“You cannot balance the budget on the back of discretionary spending,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA). “If [increased defense spending] comes at the expense of the State Department, it’s not a recipe for success; it’s a recipe for making our national security weaker.”
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) echoed Moulton’s concern over the proposed budget, warning: “If you’re going to cut State, you’re going to have to increase the bullets. That does translate into body bags.”
Moulton and Wenstrup spoke at an event at the Atlantic Council on March 16 to discuss the United States’ role in the world and the variety of concerns surrounding the early days of the new administration. Karen Attiah, global opinions editor at the Washington Post, moderated the conversation.
On March 16, Trump released a budget blueprint which proposed to hike defense spending by $54 billion, reallocating the funds by cutting domestic programs and foreign aid. While the budget outlines the administration’s priorities, it has yet to be approved by Congress.
As the new administration solidifies its national security policy and approach to foreign affairs, Trump must consider the significance of US leadership in all its many forms, the congressmen said.
“The world expects America to lead,” said Moulton, a former Marine Corps infantry officer, calling for a strong US presence on the world stage. According to Wenstrup, who also serves as an Army Reserve officer, “our role is still to be an assurance to our allies and make sure our foes know that we are there.”
However, Moulton added, “leadership is not just dropping bombs. Leadership is leading with our diplomats, with our aid, and with our values.”
US leadership on the world stage “has diminished somewhat, and I think we need to gain that back,” said Wenstrup. Former US President Barack Obama’s administration characterized its style of leadership as “lead from behind.” Moulton said, “that’s not leadership.” However, he added:
“I’m worried the Trump administration is not going to lead from behind; I’m worried they’re going to go home.”
Both representatives admitted that increased US engagement in global conflicts raises questions from US citizens as to the risks and benefits of such an approach. Wenstrup said that the primary concern of the average US citizen is “are we winning,” in terms of keeping the world and the country safe. However, he said, looking at the geopolitical landscape through such a lens does not account for the nuances which must be addressed in a national security strategy.
“We need to do a better job of breaking down in a simpler fashion for the average American what’s going on in the world and our role in the world,” said Wenstrup.
Ultimately, US citizens want to know that they and their fellow Americans are safe, said Moulton. Wenstrup said that this results in a great deal of support for US troops. He described how, despite the increased defense spending included in Trump’s budget, mandatory spending on defense is decreasing. As a result, “the troops on the front lines are not always getting what they need,” said Moulton.
However, “a lot of times we’re not always spending money in the right place,” he said. “It’s not just about a top-line number, it’s about where we can be more efficient in where we prioritize those dollars.”
While the military needs more support on the ground, both congressmen asserted that the most effective means to keeping US troops safe are inextricably tied to effective diplomacy. “More people are going to die if we don’t have good diplomacy,” Moulton said.
A cornerstone of effective US diplomacy is the strength of international alliances, particularly multilateral organizations such as the European Union and NATO. Trump has rattled US allies by questioning the value of these institutions and threatening the retraction of Washington’s commitments to longstanding alliances.
However, Moulton emphasized the importance of continued US engagement with and support for NATO. “It’s a huge priority,” he said, adding, “we have to stand up for our allies.”
“The United States will always be there and will have to live up to our promises and our agreements,” according to Moulton. He said that standing up for US allies in Europe is “not just for their security, but for ours.” Russian aggression in its neighborhood exemplifies the importance of working with allies, according to Moulton. If Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to agitate in Eastern Europe, he said, “he’s going to keep doing that here as well.” Russia is already under sanctions for its illegal annexation of Crimea and meddling in 2016 US presidential elections. While Trump has expressed a desire to improve US relations with Russia, Moulton cautioned: “I don’t think you stand up to Putin with acquiescence; you stand up to him with strength.”
When asked about Trump’s controversial travel ban which prevents refugees from around the world and citizens from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, Moulton said: “I believe this dramatically weakens our national security.” Citing the ban as an example that furthers the extremist narrative which posits the United States at war with the Muslim world, he described how the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other terrorist groups “are already using this against us.”
However, while he disagreed with many elements of the first iteration of the ban, Wenstrup said: “we do have an obligation to keep Americans safe.” He said the countries listed on the ban—Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan (Iraq was included in the first version of the ban and later removed)—are countries identified by the Obama administration as those which pose the highest risk to the United States.
Wenstrup reiterated the importance of values in forming a national security strategy, however, and said that “what is consistent with our values is to be a part of taking care of people.” He advised that the administration not turn its back on refugees, but address the bigger picture, which is “how do we turn this world around so they don’t have to flee their own country?”
Though he and Moulton differed on the efficacy of the travel ban, Wenstrup said, “our goal is the same: be who we are as a nation… but at the same time, what steps do we take to keep it safe? That’s where we have our differences.”
Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.