Compared to the massive Defense Department budget, the State Department operates on a shoe string. It consumes a little more than 1 percent of the federal budget, and it typically has to fight politicians for even that much.
Pledges to increase military spending often set the tone for campaign speeches, but the nation's diplomatic and foreign aid efforts typically attract criticism and resentment. That is a misguided and misinformed reaction.
This week's attacks on embassies in Libya and Egypt underscore the importance of the State Department and the heroism of those who devote their lives to that service, often putting themselves and their families at risk in service to their country. U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, killed in the attack in Libya, had risked his life many times while trying to preserve American interests in the African nation and to help people there accept and adopt American ideals. During the uprising against dictator Moammar Gadhafi, he had to stow away on a cargo ship in order to gain entrance to the country and establish a presence among the rebels. At the time, despite American assistance through air power, the outcome of the conflict remained in doubt.
His co-workers remembered Stevens as someone who was legendary among Libyans for his dedication to their freedom and his willingness to suffer alongside them. That his life was ended by an apparently small fanatical faction that decided to attack on behalf of a narrow interest underscores the dangers present to all foreign service workers as they represent the face of United States' policies.
Events in Libya and Egypt have yet to play out, and unrest may spread to other U.S. embassies in the region as information spreads about an obscure American-made film on the Internet. Often, world events can be sidetracked by things beyond the reach of governments. The United States should stand firm and defend its interests with force, if necessary. But the situations it encounters would be far worse without the State Department.
As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in the preface to this year's State Department budget request, foreign service employees "resolve disputes and address instability before it boils over in crisis. They reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, stabilize conflict zones, help secure our borders, fight international criminal trafficking, counter violent extremism, protect and assist Americans overseas, provide the secure platforms from which many government agencies operate, and help build stable democracies and prosperous communities that are less likely to threaten their neighbors, our allies or the United States."
Critics often counter that developing nations would be better served by free trade and free enterprise than by government aid. They miss the point. Much of what the State Department does abroad is to promote the types of conditions necessary for private companies to do business and conduct trade. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Effective diplomatic service, however, can greatly reduce the need for expensive defense measures.
And, as the world has seen, it is often not an easy job.