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US Army veteran J. David Thompson explains why it is important not to cut the State Department and USAID funding in order to increase the military’s budget. “The military cannot and should not be a one-stop shop for policy-makers,” he states. “Not fully funding the Department of State and USAID potentially comes at a serious cost to the lives of service members.”


Trump Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

US President Donald Trump’s proposal to increase the military’s budget by 10% at the expense of cutting funding for the State Department and USAID should raise alarm.

Too many of the problems that the military is sent to solve are not military problems in nature. Just because America has a really good hammer, doesn’t mean that every international problem is a nail. Just as hammering things that are not nails can wreck carpentry, applying military solutions to non-military problems can cause havoc on international stability. The underlying factors that drive instability and conflict often arise from issues better handled by governance, diplomacy and development.

State Department and USAID are experts in governance, diplomacy and development. These issues are better handled by the experts than the military (for an example of novices trying to govern, see the 113th Congress). The military cannot and should not be a one-stop shop for policy-makers.

During my first deployment to Afghanistan, the country was in shambles: literacy was criminally low; the average life expectancy was just 44 years; and Afghanistan had the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world. As a young lieutenant, I worked to provide security in my sector then connect Afghans to their government. Fortunately, I had Foreign Service Officers from State Department and USAID to provide guidance for governance and development.

A few years later I returned to Afghanistan as a Special Operations Captain. The country still had a long ways to go, but it has made drastic improvements. The average life expectancy was over 60 years. Literacy rates were at an all-time high and more people had access to healthcare. This could not have happened without the civilian and military departments working complementary to one another.

As an Army officer in Jordan, I ran a program to identify factors that increased the propensity for people to join violent extremist organizations–such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. The main factors included: a lot of bored youth, lack of a democratic voice, few jobs proportional to education and gender inequality. Jordan is not an anomaly. In research and discussions with experts who conducted similar programs in other countries, these prevail as the main push factors.

If we fail to adequately fund State Department and USAID, we will never kill our way out of war. We must address instability and conflict at its root so that we don’t continue sending young service members to endless war. Viewing novel security threats–rise in non-state actors, cyber, impacts from climate change, extreme poverty, gender inequality and lack of political representation–as “war” means we react with traditional responses. Policy-makers and the public need to have the same public discussions on geoeconomics and soft power as we do military intervention.

Although, increasing the military’s budget has some tangible benefits. The U.S. is home to many arms manufacturers and military contractors. Increasing the military’s budget means that these contracting companies can add jobs, boosting these sectors of our economy. Having discussions about the economic benefits is different than discussing the national security implications, though. Further, we must be wary of the military-industrial complex. We can’t have an economy that relies so heavily on military spending.

Using smart power has benefits. For security, it helps to prevent crises, stabilize weak and failing states and combat terrorism. Economically, it opens new markets, creates jobs and promotes commerce. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated, “Economic development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers.” Additionally, we must consider the human cost in addition to the fiscal cost. 

Diplomacy and development are not going to prevent every conflict and we need to be serious about the limitations of American intervention. However, if we are going to continue sending service members overseas to fight–and potentially die–in combat, we owe it to them to have responsible discussions at home. We cannot continue to sit back disengaged while the 1% shoulders the burden for the rest of us. Not fully funding the Department of State and USAID potentially comes at a serious cost to the lives of service members. As a veteran, it’s one that I hope we don’t make.