AI: Good afternoon, General, and thanks for agreeing to talk about what I think is an important and under-analyzed subject: the possible effects of austerity on our foreign policy.
Let’s first get our terms straight. By “austerity” I mean not just how bad the economy is, but also the solvency of the U.S. government. Solvency isn’t just a matter of how much money the IRS collects; it’s based on programmatic decisions of how much the Administration and Congress choose to spend on the various elements of public policy. And by the foreign affairs budget I mean not just the Department of Defense, but also the State Department and USAID, Treasury, Commerce, Justice, the intelligence community—all the non-military aspects of what the government budgets for in the international area.
Brent Scowcroft: Agreed; those are right definitions.
AI: So my first question is a general one: What would be the generic effect of three or four years of flat or declining budgets across the board on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy? Would that change our internal debates over issues like Afghanistan? Would it change the way foreign governments, allies and adversaries alike, size up what we’re likely to do? Would it have much real impact on our ability to project power?
Brent Scowcroft: First of all, before coming to the effects of austerity, I do think it’s likely to happen. I think we’re going to see flat or declining budgets, and that’s going to happen whether the economy more or less recovers or doesn’t recover. A bad economy would add pressure, no doubt, but we’re at the end of a period of growing defense and national security budgets in any case.
The direction is downward for many reasons. One is the sharp growth we’ve seen in the defense and national security budgets for a number of years, and a growing sentiment that other public policy areas need more attention. I think that the 2008 election partly reflects that sense. Another reason, I think, is the perception that the demands of the war in Iraq are mainly behind us. We’ve also thankfully not had a repeat of the 9/11 attacks now for more than eight years, so the fears of terrorism have faded somewhat. I also don’t think most people have thought about the war in Afghanistan in budget terms yet. In short, the mood of the country, as well as the politics, won’t sustain high and rising budgets.
Now, I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing. I hate to say it, but it would probably be...