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Opinion | Rethinking America’s Approach to the World



The White House has ordered a freeze on up to $4 billion that Congress approved for global health, United Nations peacekeeping and other foreign aid. Unless lawmakers can overcome a complicated legislative process and force a reversal by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, that money could be denied to programs fighting Ebola, promoting stability in Africa and countering extremism with a youth employment initiative in fragile nations like Jordan.

Once again, the administration is shrinking from peaceful engagement with the world. President Trump has gutted the diplomatic corps, and if Congress hadn’t stopped him, he would have slashed the State Department by as much as 30 percent.

This all worsens a decades-long trend by Democratic and Republican presidents of relying increasingly on military power to advance American interests.

The military accounts for more than half of discretionary federal spending. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, the counterterrorism wars have cost an estimated $5.9 trillion, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, thus adding to the ballooning national debt with which future generations will have to reckon.

But, fearful of being labeled unpatriotic, even lawmakers who question Pentagon spending usually end up supporting enormous budgets. As Congress argued over the defense budget this year, Democrats favored an increase to $733 billion from $716 billion while Republicans wanted $750 billion. They settled at $738 billion, a near-record level. And even before the increase, the United States was spending more on defense than all of the next seven countries combined.

Allocations for the State Department and related agencies, on the other hand, were $56 billion before the White House moved to rescind the $4 billion. There are more people working in military grocery stores than there are diplomats.

American foreign policy is overdue for a rebalancing, one that would curb military deployments in more than 100 countries and instead revive a more multidimensional approach to strengthen democracy and make the world safer.

James Goldgeier, a professor of international relations at American University, said that a recent roundup of progressive and conservative views on reimagining foreign policy, in the Texas National Security Review, showed potential for a bipartisan consensus. It would be based, he said, on “the growing belief among many progressives and conservatives that the United States should be engaged in fewer military interventions in the world, given the failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.”

Dov Zakheim, a top Pentagon official under President George W. Bush, rejecting Mr. Trump’s “purely transactional” foreign policy, wrote in the review that “a conservative middle way” would allow the United States to remain active in the world while being neither interventionist nor isolationist.

Loren DeJonge Schulman, deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, wrote in the review: “There are alternatives to today’s counterterror strategy, and it would not be an insult to the military to debate them. It’s entirely legitimate to study whether the military is equipped to face today’s threats without being accused of retreating from the world or starting with an artificial budget cut.”

The president, who advocates bigger military budgets, has in the meantime been more supportive of a nuclear arms race than of arms control agreements. He has pushed for foreign arms sales and denigrated the United Nations, the World Bank and other international institutions that, however much they need reform, help manage disputes and regulate global relations.

While the United States needs a strong defense, it also needs to develop a national security strategy that doesn’t rely on limitless, sometimes wanton, military spending — the Pentagon failed its first audit last year — and that calls for restraint in deploying forces overseas. Such a strategy would also invest far more in diplomacy, development, economic justice, free and fair trade, nuclear nonproliferation and a reversal of climate change.

Such rethinking is gaining traction among some Democratic presidential candidates. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have called for an end to America’s endless wars. Ms. Warren has proposed doubling the Foreign Service and the Peace Corps and opening new posts in underserved areas around the world, an approach worth considering. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., a military veteran, has rejected conflicts with ill-defined missions, and former Vice President Joe Biden has said the “use of force should be our last resort, not our first — used only to defend our vital interests, when the objective is clear and achievable and with the informed consent of the American people.”

There’s no reason these could not be bipartisan goals.

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