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Dwindling Presence Abroad

November 27, 1987

The budget that pays State Department salaries, expenses and security costs runs about $1.6 billion, almost invisible in a federal budget that is more than $1 trillion. But it is a highly visible budget in terms of its projection of the United States overseas, in terms of what foreigners see, and in terms of the support that it provides Americans when they are abroad.

Its obvious importance, however, has not been recognized by Congress. Tight budgets combined with rising costs overseas and the declining value of the dollar, which buys less against most foreign currencies that diplomatic posts use to meet local expenses, are forcing cutbacks in American diplomacy that are most unwise.

The appropriations for the current year are back before the congressional committees that are charged with sorting out the deficit-reduction agreement struck last week, so there is no way to predict precisely how much the State Department will receive. But even if it receives what it had this year, it will be forced to make cuts of close to $125 million based solely on the declining value of the dollar and the rising costs of goods and services that are purchased abroad.

In anticipation of further Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bites, the State Department has drawn up a contingency plan that would drop 502 jobs, most of them in Washington but including a number of economic-reporting positions overseas, and eliminate two embassies in Africa and 13 consulates. Budget reductions already have forced an embarrassing cancellation of plans to host the annual meeting of the Organization of American States in California.

Funding for diplomatic posts had been steadily increasing until 1986, when expenditures leveled off. Since then, cutbacks by Congress have been further cut back as the dollar's value has declined.

Planning and implementing effective foreign policy depends on two things: competent reporting by widely deployed professional Foreign Service officers, and representation in foreign capitals and major cities by diplomats who are trained to project the national interest.

The kinds of attrition in the Foreign Service that are implicit in the initial congressional budget decisions will only weaken the ability of the United States to develop and implement an effective foreign policy.

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