Several reports indicate that a group of Democratic lawmakers has called to increase funding for diplomatic institutions and foreign aid agencies by 20%, or more than $12 billion. This is an important move by Democrats to give renewed consideration to diplomatic tools and their role in United States (US) foreign policy. However, it runs up against obstacles to passing these demands in Congress, especially with many Republican members unconvinced of the usefulness of soft diplomacy in the first place. Various dimensions of recent calls to boost spending on US diplomacy can be summed up as follows:
1. Democratic calls for increased spending on soft power: Democratic calls have arisen recently to boost spending to enhance the role of US soft power. Democratic Senators Chris Murphy and Chris Van Hollen, as well as Representatives Ami Bera and David Cicilline, have called to adopt a new plan to increase funding to the US State Department, development agencies, and other foreign aid by 20%, or more than $12 billion.
These calls aim to increase spending on US-funded media to counter global disinformation and propaganda operations by increasing funding for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center from $55 million to $138 million, and for the US Agency for Global Media from $807 million to $857 million. Funding for the Millennium Challenge Corporation—a smaller independent aid agency focused on economic development—would also be doubled from $905 million to $1.81 billion.
2. The need to compete diplomatically with China: Lawmakers proposing the plan to increase funding for soft power justify it saying the US will fall behind China if it does not increase funding to the State Department and other foreign aid programs. In the last decade, China doubled its budget for diplomacy. Legislators also called for the increased funding to focus on addressing climate change, preventing future pandemics, and confronting China at the level of foreign diplomacy.
3. Calls to cut the Defense Department budget: The Democratic plan to boost the role of American soft power coincides with pressure on US President Joe Biden from progressive lawmakers to cut defense spending. In this context, Representative Mark Pocan and more than 50 other members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Biden, urging him to reduce the Pentagon budget, which is 13 times greater than that of the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
At the same time, they called upon the need to stop trying to solve non-military problems with military tools, and give agencies such as the State Department and USAID the resources they need in the twenty-first century to solve various problems.
4. Possible obstacles to increased funding for diplomatic channels: Democrats’ proposals will face hurdles in a Senate narrowly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Even if the White House were to welcome the plan, it is not clear whether enough Republican lawmakers—many of whom question the swelling federal budget and rising deficit—will support the proposal in its entirety.
In conclusion, the Democratic plan to increase spending on the US State Department, development agencies, and other foreign aid is a stark departure from the approach of the Trump administration, which tried to cut funding for diplomatic and foreign assistance. The plan is consistent with the Biden administration’s focus, since its inception, on curbing China’s global role. Passing the plan within Congress still depends on its ability to secure the support of enough Republican lawmakers’ votes.