Despite Cash Crunch, U.S. Must Still Lead the World

By Glenn Nye

It's easy to get lost in America's big budget debate. There is so much talk of impending shutdowns and continuing resolutions, debt reduction and tax reform, revenues and spending cuts. And both U.S. President Barack Obama and the House Republicans have now presented proposals for the 2012 budget while the debate over the 2011 budget still rages on. It can get confusing, but it is all part of a vital conversation Americans have to have on how to get their fiscal house in order following a deep recession. What should not be lost amid all the rhetoric, however, is a serious look at America's desired role in the world and what resources will be required to ensure that the United States can play that role.

The political stakes of the budget debate are clearly high. With fundamental differences separating America's two political parties on budget priorities, a government shutdown seems imminent. As if that's not bad enough, the timing of an April shutdown threatens to leave many taxpayers waiting to receive their annual tax refunds. That won't be popular. But the underlying reasons for the debate are legitimate. America must come to terms with its budget deficits, and soon. With broad agreement on the urgent need to deal with the debt as a national security priority, the big question is how to do it. There is a danger that, in a rush to balance the numbers, easy but dangerous targets present themselves. Foreign affairs always looms high on the budget-cutting agenda, but in a time when world events are rapidly unfolding that will challenge America and our European allies for decades, it would be a mistake to deprive ourselves of the resources to influence those events. Leading in a strong partnership with Europe is the best way to ensure America's national security is defended while keeping the budget in check.

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America's allies are rightly interested to know what global leadership role a cash-strapped United States intends to play in the future. The profound nature of current events in the Middle East should not be underestimated. If the "Arab Spring" results in successful democratic uprisings in places like Syria, or expands into a "Persian Spring" and brings about real political change in Iran, the upsides for global security are huge. The paymasters of regional terrorist groups could be closed down. And Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions could be squelched.

But the successful growth of stable Middle Eastern democracies to replace authoritarian regimes is unlikely without assistance from the West. President Obama seems intent on ensuring America's military involvement in Libya is in support of a NATO effort. European military leadership is enabling that approach. Supporting democratization in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond would also be most effective as a team effort. Neither America nor its European allies are likely to be successful on their own. We have learned some useful lessons on cooperating with Europe as development allies in Afghanistan, so the question is how to apply those lessons to stabilize these new Middle Eastern governments. The challenges ahead argue strongly for a renewed compact with Europe on development -- an urgent team approach designed to solidify democratic governments in the Middle East -- both to strengthen regional democracy and to prevent damaging influence from extremists. However it comes together, America and Europe need to be ready to devote the resources necessary to maximize the chance of success, despite domestic budget pressures.

Arguing for investments in development funds is not always an easy sell with taxpayers. Perceptions of foreign assistance tend to be negative and overblown. It is particularly tough on the heels of a recession. On the other hand, foreign operations funds make up a very small share of the national budget, less than one percent, and comprise less than ten percent of the defense budget. Foreign aid should be subject to rigorous scrutiny to ensure a fair return to the taxpayer and should be employed as efficiently as possible. But it is too easy to lose sight of aid's importance to national security. This is a bipartisan responsibility. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has proposed refocusing resources on stabilization initiatives and concentrating capabilities that would meet the challenges presented today in the Middle East. Some have suggested combining defense and foreign operations into a unified national security budget to protect civilian national security resources and reflect their importance. Whatever the method, now is the time for Americans to determine that global leadership is still vital and that our budget priorities need to reflect that.

Despite the difficulty, investing to work with European partners on development is worth the effort. Now we just need to budget for it.

Glenn Nye, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington.

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