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Ex-Military Leaders Bemoan Trump's Proposed Cuts To Diplomacy


Every year, the president submits a budget, and Congress largely ignores it. So really, it's more of a political statement from the White House than anything else, and part of this year's political statement - billions of dollars more for defense spending and billions less for diplomacy and development. That is raising concerns from some former top military brass who released a joint letter essentially saying, we don't need all of this money. Don't take money away from diplomats. They wrote, quote, "we know that the military alone cannot keep our nation safe." Among those who signed, retired Admiral James Stavridis. He's former supreme allied commander for Europe, and he joins me on the line this morning.

Admiral, thanks as always for coming on with us.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: Pleasure to be with you, David.

GREENE: So why say that the military doesn't need all the money that President Trump is proposing, that it's so important for diplomacy to be funded as well?

STAVRIDIS: Well, let's look at it this way - for your listeners, everyone sort of understands medicine, right? So when you spend money on defense, on military solutions, it's like surgery. It's painful. It's high-risk. Things go wrong. When you spend money on diplomacy, with our wonderful foreign service officers, it's kind of like going to the clinic and using a variety of different drugs and physical therapy. And when you think about development and soft power, it's preventative medicine. It's those things like working out, taking an aspirin. It's low-cost, low pain, and yet it has long-term benefits. So any military person will tell you, use us as a last resort. Use surgery only when you have to. When you can, use preventative medicine - that's development - or diplomacy, but don't reach for that military instrument too soon.

GREENE: But I guess, if I'm going to follow with your analogy, I mean, there are always choices and priorities, obviously. And if preventative action is really important, you also want to make sure that you're equipped to deal with those, you know, horrific, life-threatening illnesses. I mean, the president is basically saying that the Pentagon needs to have a 5-percent increase in spending. Are you saying that the nation can still be prepared to deal with a major war, to deal with a disaster, without that extra money?

STAVRIDIS: I think so. When I look at what we spend on defense, which is pushing up toward $650 to $700 billion dollars a year, as compared to what we spend on diplomacy and development, which is in a couple of dozen billions of dollars a year, the scale is just enormous. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously said, look, we have more people on a single aircraft carrier - and we have 12 of those, David - than we do in the entire foreign service. And another one is former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who said, you can spend a lot more money on the military, but if you're not going to spend it on our diplomats and development, you're just going to have to buy me more ammunition. Those are two voices I would listen to. Let's keep this thing in balance.

GREENE: Is there an example from your career where - that might give us, you know, a concrete example of this, where you feel like, I don't know, that you really missed out on having diplomats with the funding and support they needed, or you felt like they really played a crucial role in a way that we might not have noticed?

STAVRIDIS: Absolutely. Unequivocally, the most important ships that I deployed to Latin America and the Caribbean were not aircraft carriers, they were hospital ships. They conducted hundreds of thousands of patient treatments all over Central America, the Caribbean, South America. And I, without question, will tell you the impact, long-term, on U.S. security in that region was much, much higher.

GREENE: Isn't the reality here that Congress is basically going to ignore this? The president must know that. So could this be just sort of an opening stage of negotiation? Where the president is saying, you know, I'm not going to put money behind diplomacy in this initial document, but you make the case, you make the case for what is important, and if you make a solid case, you know, I have to make choices on where to put the dollars. Make a solid case, and I'll fund it.

STAVRIDIS: I think that's good analysis, and that's certainly historically what we've seen in the two short years of the Trump administration. They start out with a defense increase, and, I mean, massive cuts to diplomacy and development - 25 to 30 percent cuts. In cutting those functions, development and diplomacy, is a classic example of penny-wise but pound-foolish. You really hurt yourself long term doing that.

GREENE: Retired Admiral James Stavridis. Admiral, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

STAVRIDIS: David, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.