Why I Thought / Still Think a Unified National Security Budget is a Good Idea
Posted by David Shorr
I was very happy to read, in the flurry of NSS coverage, Josh Rogin's report that Secretary Clinton is pushing the idea of combining the budgets of the State and Defense Departments and USAID into a single unified national security budget. There are many compelling reasons of strategy, and mere logic, to take this step. But the kicker is this: it's the single measure with the greatest potential to shift more resources toward diplomacy and development.
In 2008, when Derek Chollet, Vikram Singh (now in the administration) and I did a project on this issue, we were particularly intrigued by a central problem. Given the existence of a strikingly broad expert consensus that the civilian agencies are severely under-funded, why wasn't there serious discussion of funding increases that would really rebalance the civilian and military budgets? As Laura Conley and Sean Duggan remind us, the DoD budget absolutely dwarfs those of DoS and AID. To paraphrase Mark Twain, everybody talks about the importance of strong civilian agencies for American interests and influence, but nobody does anything about it.
A unified budget could help policy makers put money where their combining-all-the-elements-of-our-power mouth is. To the extent that the problem is in the purse-string-holding legislature, it could help redress a related imbalance. The Pentagon not only gets huge and swelling annual budgets, it does so with relatively few questions asked, while diplomatic and development efforts are supported grudgingly. Notwithstanding the importance of legislative oversight, with the current severe shortfall in civilian capacity, this is a moment to affirm the value of diplomacy and development and make the needed investments.
As I said, unifying the budgets holds unique potential as a lever on the problem. And focusing on this particular strength should lead us to strip the idea to its essence. When Vikram and I wrote our November 2008 memo on the subject (Derek had already been tapped for the transition), our most important recommendation was to avoid weighing down the unified budget with too many other reforms. Smart colleagues like the Project on National Security Reform have made deeper analyses of what the bureaucracy must do to integrate defense, diplomacy, and development and make them more modern and strategic. But if the budgetary imbalance is the key challenge, then it makes sense to single out the unified budget idea rather than embedding it within a comprehensive reform package. In other words, beware of best-is-enemy-of-the-good type trade-offs.