Editorial Board

In Defense of Soft Power

The president's "hard-power budget" leaves much to be desired.

So small it fits on a phone.

Photographer: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

"This is a hard-power budget," the White House budget director announced on Thursday, and he wasn't wrong: Only three cabinet departments -- Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs -- see their spending increase, while drastic cuts would come to such soft-power centers as the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.

A few words on behalf of soft power, then. Never mind that President Donald Trump's budget blueprint is almost comically incomplete and almost certainly unpassable. The assumptions it makes about America's role in the world -- and the federal government's role in America -- deserve to be challenged.

Trump's plan to boost defense spending at the expense of almost all else would undermine decades of U.S. leadership. Consider its proposal to walk away from the global fight against climate change.

Trump and his EPA administrator may not believe climate change is real, but his secretary of state and many of his generals do. In fact, the Pentagon has described it as "an urgent and growing threat to our national security." Cutting annual funding to developing countries to fight climate change -- it amounts to about twice what the Pentagon spends each year on military bands -- would only make it harder for them to address natural disasters and may increase the odds of refugee flows and conflicts over basic resources. It would also reduce U.S. influence in countries most vulnerable to such risks.

And soft power isn’t only abroad: It can also help protect and strengthen America's natural resources and civic institutions. This is not an argument for greater regulation or more public funding. But surely the government has a role to play in helping more Americans enjoy the benefits of a national park, a concert or a school lunch.

It's not that every cut Trump is proposing is bad. Reducing the U.S. contribution to United Nations peacekeeping missions, for example -- which is now above its capped assessment of 25 percent -- is a way of forcing greater accountability and discipline. And there are plenty of efficiencies to be gleaned in how the U.S. provides its development aid.

But cutting back on things like cultural exchanges while "hardening" embassies -- the top item touted in the State Department section of Trump's budget handout -- makes it harder for diplomats to do their jobs and sends the wrong signal about America. As the current Secretary of Defense James Mattis once put it: "If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition." That would be a bad choice for all concerned.