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How much of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid? Thirty percent? Twenty percent? One percent?

If you chose 1 percent, you are correct – and part of a very small minority. Most Americans believe that a large share of federal spending goes to helping other countries. And most believe that is too much.

The opinion that America is overly generous is reflected in survey after survey, with polling respondents pegging foreign aid between 25 and 28 percent of the U.S. budget. This common misperception has made foreign aid a recurring topic of debate for decades and a tempting target for politicians who question the importance of “soft power,” including development aid and diplomacy.

Chief among the skeptics: President Donald Trump. His view of soft power versus hard power, or military might, was brought into sharp focus in mid-March with a plan to transform the way the United States deals with the rest of the world. In a nutshell: less diplomacy, less foreign aid, more military power.

The change is laid out in a document titled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” and follows up on the president’s February pledge to ask Congress to fund “one of the greatest military buildups in American history.” The proposed budget provides for a 10 percent increase in military spending, up around $54 billion next year, to be financed by cuts elsewhere.

The boost for the military will be offset, in part, with a 28 percent cut ($10.9 billion) to America’s diplomatic service and the United States Agency for International Development. USAID, established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, is an independent agency but works closely with the State Department. Their spending is usually lumped together under the rubric “international affairs.”

To leave no doubt about the president’s thinking, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters before the proposal was sent to Congress: “This is the America First budget. It is not a soft-power budget … There’s no question this is a hard-power budget. The president wants to send a message to our allies and potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration.”

Coined in the late 1980s by the Harvard political scientists Joseph Nye, the term soft power embraces more than diplomacy and assistance to foreign countries. It also covers cultural and educational exchange programs meant to improve the image of the United States.

One of the most successful initiatives sponsored by the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Scholar Program each years sends 800 American scholars and professionals to around 130 countries. They lecture and conduct research in a wide variety of fields and effectively serve as goodwill ambassadors. Another program, American Music Abroad, sends performers to countries with little exposure to American music.

Though the term soft power was not used during the Cold War, many of those who lived through it would probably agree that American blue jeans, music and Hollywood films were instruments of soft power that helped deepen dissatisfaction with the rigid way of life in the Soviet Union and its satellites.

Under the Trump blueprint, federal subsidies to the arts would be terminated and America’s contribution to the peacekeeping and humanitarian budgets of the United Nations could be slashed by more than half, aid officials fear.

Precisely what and how much will be cut from the State Department and foreign aid programs is yet to be determined – Trump’s blueprint is short of details. A more precise budget will be released in May, according to the White House. If the numbers come even close to the reductions many expect, that could mean “the breakdown of the international humanitarian system as we know it,” according to Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Building up the military at the expense of “soft power” is based on the assumption that diplomacy and foreign aid are of little or no benefit to the United States. “This is a dangerous misconception,” said a State Department official who asked not to be identified.

Influential leaders on both sides of the aisle in Congress agree. But the most persuasive arguments in this and previous debates about soft vs. hard power has come not from lawmakers but from the military.

Within hours of the administration’s budget leaking out on Feb. 28, more than 120 high-profile retired generals and admirals warned that gutting diplomacy and development aid could endanger national security.

In a letter to the House and Senate leadership, they wrote: “We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone – from confronting violent extremist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and Africa to preventing pandemics like Ebola and stabilizing weak and fragile states that can lead to greater instability.”

The letter’s heavyweight signatories included General David Petraeus, commander of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan before heading the Central Intelligence Agency from 2011 to 2012, as well as retired Admiral James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of NATO and retired General Keith Alexander, former chief of the National Security Agency.

They added: “The State Department, USAID … and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.” Strengthening soft power, their argument goes, is as necessary to keep America safe as having a strong military.

How receptive the new commander-in-chief will be to this line of thinking remains to be seen. Coming to agreement on a budget is a complicated and protracted affair. There are doubts that Trump will get all he wants.

Bernd Debusmann

Bernd Debusmann has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and the U.S.

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