July 20, 2017 — Tunis, Tunisia
From Washington, the issue of American leadership – much in the news these days in the wake of President Trump’s recent interactions with counterparts in Europe and the Middle East – has a distinctly abstract air. But 4,500 miles away in this North African capital, where an AJC (American Jewish Committee) delegation just concluded its latest round of consultations, and where the preservation of security and democracy are urgent concerns, the issue is anything but abstract.
America is needed here – our economic assistance, our military equipment and know-how, and most of all our consistent partnership as this pioneer nation of the Arab Upheaval, six-and-a-half years after ousting its last dictator, seeks to make irreversible its embrace of representative government.
Zoom out to the big picture: American global leadership, a guarantor of stability, security and peace for our nation and our allies since the end of the Second World War, is the opposite of a fixed asset. Squandered or abandoned, leadership diminishes over time. It requires continuous assertion – and continuous investment.
It hardly needs repeating that the benefits of this expensive investment are nearly incalculable. American investment in NATO enabled Europe to enjoy decades of freedom and growth, protected from Soviet expansionism. Forceful American advocacy of democracy and universal human rights; generous American support for global economic development, entrepreneurship, and disease prevention; strategic American recruitment of many of the world’s best and brightest students and rising political leaders; America’s steady shattering of scientific boundaries and American-led humanitarian intervention in response to natural disasters – these and other pursuits and commitments, none of them cheap, have saved lives here and abroad, bolstered American political influence, and affirmed and reaffirmed America’s indispensable role in the international order.
Robust and bipartisan American commitment to military superiority has backstopped and enforced American global leadership – and must never be neglected. But strength is an ingredient of leadership, not a substitute or a synonym for it.
It is in this context of necessary investment in American global leadership, and of the definition of leadership, that one must view the current debate over President Trump’s proposed international affairs budget and congressional moves to reshape it.
In setting forth the State Department’s spending blueprint for Fiscal Year 2018, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that it “addresses the challenges to American leadership abroad and the importance of defending our national security interests,” while at the same time recognizing that “U.S. diplomacy engagement and aid programs must be more efficient and more effective.”
Efficiency and effectiveness in the expenditure of tax dollars – on an international aid and diplomatic architecture that consumes roughly 1 percent of the federal budget – must always be a management priority. But when a new administration proposes a 32 percent cut in international affairs spending, as the president’s blueprint outlined, it suggests that the priority is not efficiency but withdrawal: withdrawal from active diplomatic engagement in the world’s trouble spots and future trouble spots, withdrawal from a seat at the table in international negotiations, withdrawal from the day-to-day demands not only of American leadership in a complex and unpredictable world, but even of American global citizenship, withdrawal from support for good friends in need.
Congress may reverse this backward-looking budget plan. The House Appropriations Committee is poised to discard much of its disinvestment in international affairs, and rumblings in the Senate suggest it may be on a similar path.
Now zoom in to Tunisia: In the president’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, U.S. economic and military assistance to a country that bravely established and has steadfastly defended democracy for more than six years, while fighting off Islamic State terrorists and confronting chaos on its Libyan border, would be cut by more than two-thirds – from $177 million in Fiscal Year 2016, the last full program year, to $55 million in Fiscal 2018. Military aid would shift from grants to loans – loans the cash-strapped Tunisian treasury can ill afford. The U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative, which, among other projects, provides U.S. scholarships for a cadre of the next generation of Tunisian leaders, would be slashed by more than 60 percent.
Tunisia is imperfect. Its democracy is not fully developed, one of its major parties bears the biases and dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood, and endemic corruption – a target of the determined new prime minister – is a continuing drag on the economy and good governance. Its foreign policy would benefit from fresh thinking about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But Tunisia has been a friend of the United States for more than two centuries, and as it seeks to fulfill its citizens’ aspirations, fight our common enemies, and defend our common values, it deserves consistent American engagement and support. Whether it and other needy friends get that support will be another in this season’s tests of American global leadership.
Jason Isaacson is the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Associate Executive Director for Policy.
This article was originally published in The Hill.