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Opinion

Another view: A welcome, and unanimous, vote for soft power

In a sharp and welcome rebuke to President Donald Trump's approach to foreign policy, a Senate committee voted last week in favor of more diplomacy. Support was unanimous.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $51.2 billion for the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other overseas assistance – more than a third greater than the $37.6 billion the administration had requested. Not only was its proposal disturbingly incomplete, but it shortchanged humanitarian aid, economic development, multilateral organizations and cultural exchanges. It would have undercut U.S. leadership and left Americans more vulnerable to threats such as climate change, transnational crime and the spread of infectious diseases.

In recent months, the drawbacks of this so-called "hard power budget" have become even more glaringly apparent. From North Korea and Afghanistan to Venezuela and Central America, the administration has been forced to recognize that U.S. military might is necessary but not sufficient. To maintain alliances, contain complex threats, win hearts and minds, and keep small problems from becoming big ones, soft power – as well as seasoned diplomats to wield it – is essential.

The appropriations committee's bill tries to fill some of those gaps. It fights threats such as drug trafficking and illegal migration by restoring funding to strengthen law enforcement and governance in Central America and Colombia. It helps create new markets by supporting economic development overseas. It bolsters global stability by boosting spending to address famines, epidemics and disease. Even with the bill's failure to restore U.S. funding for the Green Climate Fund, its $10 million increase over Trump's budget still represents money well spent.

Less welcome are the committee's well-intentioned efforts to hamstring any restructuring of the State Department with amendments to micromanage bureaus and staffing levels. Congress has the power to do this, but it is a blunt instrument that can reduce flexibility, sap resources and disrupt policymaking. Congress itself has hailed previous efforts to prune the department's bloated roster of mandated "special envoys" – an effort Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pledged to step up.

The convoluted U.S. budget process might not reach a conclusion until December, in the form of an omnibus spending bill that lands on Trump's desk. But the Senate committee's bipartisan vote, coming after a similar one in the House, is a timely affirmation of U.S. leadership that should concentrate minds both in the White House and at the State Department.

Bloomberg View

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