Why the U.S. Spends More on War Than It Does on Diplomacy

Coke Navarro

President Barack Obama has long insisted that force alone can't resolve America's toughest challenges abroad. But if budgets are a window into a nation's priorities, the U.S. values its soldiers far more than its diplomats.

For fiscal 2016, the Pentagon has had nearly $600 billion at its disposal. That's twice the size of the defense budget before the 9/11 attacks and more than 10 times the amount the State Department received for diplomacy.

The ratio is widening. For fiscal 2017, Obama has asked Congress to increase Pentagon spending by $22 billion, while his State Department request has remained flat, at $50 billion. In fact, the Pentagon has more members of the armed forces serving in marching bands than the State Department has career diplomats.

Historically, Congress has always provided more money for defense than diplomacy; weapons, after all, cost far more than foreign aid. But the gap has widened dramatically, says Charles Stevenson, a former State Department policy planner who teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

After World War II, he notes, Congress passed the Marshall Plan, which provided billions in foreign assistance to help rebuild Western Europe. During the Cold War, Congress also funded influential programs like the U.S. Information Agency, which disseminated news and information about American culture behind the Iron Curtain.

Back then, the State Department's budget was half the Pentagon's. In more recent years, budgets for diplomacy have shrunk as lawmakers pushed for more money to cover the military's generous health care benefits and pay for new weapons and technology.

Pork also plays a role. Lawmakers appropriate money for weapons the military no longer needs to keep constituents employed. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin is overseeing the manufacture of the next-generation F-35 fighter jet in nearly all 50 states. That guarantees the program, which has cost more than $500 billion so far, maintains strong support in Congress.

Another factor in the growing gap between defense and diplomatic spending is partisan dysfunction on Capitol Hill. Since 1986, constant bickering over social issues such as abortion has rendered Congress incapable of passing a key foreign policy measure that would authorize some of the State Department's top priorities. The default approach, Stevenson notes, has been to attach those priorities to a separate measure that funds the nation's defenses—and passes every year.

The result has been that the military—and the intelligence community, whose funding is secretly folded into the defense budget—increasingly performs diplomatic tasks that once were the State Department's specialty. For instance, knowledgeable sources tell Newsweek that the CIA, not the State Department, is midwifing secret negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels to end the civil war in Yemen.

Some lawmakers are now trying to address the gap between Pentagon and State. One idea: proposing cutbacks in the number of military marching bands. Yet even that suggestion is meeting stiff resistance. Opponents on Capitol Hill argue band reductions actually will increase the Pentagon's costs because the remaining military bands will have to travel more often. "Pentagon program don't die," quips a House Armed Services Committee aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "They don't even fade away."