Last month, the Center for New American Security released a report, “America’s Civilian Operations Abroad: Understanding Past and Future Requirements” (which can be found online at This publication undertakes an analysis of the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development. More specifically, their civilian response missions overseas. These operations, including efforts to alleviate conflict, humanitarian, and natural disasters, are steadily increasing as America’s role in the world shifts to confront new foreign policy challenges. More striking than the rising cost associated with maintaining this type of assistance; is the simple fact that the U.S. is expected to do more in the realm of world affairs despite political and economic pressure to cut funding to critical components of international aid.

While the amount of foreign aid allotted by the federal budget hovers around 1% of the total, the pressure is mounting on the legislative and executive branches to minimize spending on efforts that don’t immediately affect domestic constituents. This is understandable from the point of view of the general populace, but putting aside some election angst, there is a real and tangible need to provide protection and assistance to safeguard and uphold American interests. These interests range from embassy-channeled diplomatic operations and routine foreign assistance (food, economic aid, and the like) to conflict response and humanitarian aid.

The untimely paradox is that the 2011 operating budget for State Department’s foreign assistance was cut by $8 billion while the Department of Defense received an increase of around $5 billion; despite the fact that the DoD is drawing down force operations in Iraq and, beginning shortly, in Afghanistan, while the State Department will be left to “pick up the slack” with an increase in their development mandates.

These increasing mission parameters will focus, namely, on providing proper levels of security, through which, assistance can be delivered; security that, otherwise, would have been provided by the DoD. This is why we see plans in the State Department to increase security contractors by 12,800 in Iraq this coming fiscal year. Nonetheless, it’s certainly cost-prohibitive, beyond a certain point, to spend ~80% of your resources garnering outside contracting support and only ~20% on what the mission aims to accomplish.

Meeting future requirements is crucial to the United States’ role as an alleviating factor to the most widespread forms of human suffering: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. These ubiquitous causes of global concern are not projected by any metric to subside in the near future. Moreover, the trend, from both political parties, is to increase the amount of these response operations in keeping with American interests and/or moral responsibility.

A serious, impactful debate on this dilemma has yet to materialize in the public fore. The CNAS report is one of the first publications to dole out potential strategies to confront this problem; but, it is doubtful that innovation, reform, and private sector involvement will be enough to stave off the inescapable mismatch between what is expected of the U.S. abroad and what the U.S. can achieve.

Joseph Popcun, an analyst on contract with the Department of Homeland Security, enjoys following current developments in foreign affairs, national security, and public policy. A Syracuse University graduate, and Syracuse native, he hopes to continue policy work on federal issues of immigration, defense, and international relations.

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