by Marissa Conway, ASP Adjunct Fellow
When violence looms as an omnipresent threat, it is understandable that a call for more military strength may seem the best instinctual option to address the United States’ national security concerns. The recently revealed federal budget outline falls in line with such an approach to security and sits in parallel with President Trump’s call for “foreign policy realism” when he was still campaigning. This budget outline advises a hike in defense spending by about 10%, while the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department’s budget would be slashed by approximately 37%. But the only problem with prioritizing national security over diplomacy is that it will result in both less security and less diplomacy.
Put simply, cuts in USAID and diplomatic budgets will only mean more conflicts that the military will have to fight. Cuts to USAID are far more than just cuts to diplomatic engagement: they will affect the everyday people who make up any given community create a ripple effect from their daily lived experiences into the very depths of the international arena, and none more so significantly than women.
USAID has a long history of investing in and promoting women’s and girls’ rights as “no society can develop successfully without providing equitable opportunities, resources, and life prospects for males and females so that they can shape their own lives and contribute to their families and communities.” This line of thinking is inclusive to national security as well. Micro level initiatives have macro level influence, as higher levels of gender equality in societies coincide with lower levels of conflict. It’s also been noted that should domestic violence end, approximately 5.2% of global GDP could be added to the world economy.
Experts in international relations and development agree that women are key to restricting the proliferation of terrorism. While often constructed as either victims or peacemakers in situations of conflict, the reality is that women are powerful and dynamic agents of change. Studies have shown that women are often key to detecting early signs of radicalization, intervening before violence is inflicted. And as USAID notes, “the traditional roles ascribed to women in many societies, such as wife, mother, and nurturer, can empower them to shape their home, school, and social environments to make extremism and violence a less desirable option.” However, this only happens when women’s lives are taken seriously; an attitude which has become a cornerstone of USAID programs.
For example, Paiman, an organization in Pakistan which works to foster engaged citizens and communities, has received funds from USAID and other US institutions. One of their initiatives includes a program which unites women in their efforts to eradicate terrorism. The group goes from village to village to share information with mothers about the danger of recruitment by radical groups, while simultaneously seeking out job opportunities for young men who are deemed at-risk. Should programs like Paiman lose funding opportunities due to the newly proposed budget, efforts to counter extremist recruitment efforts will falter, and national security will directly suffer.
Such a significant cut to the State Department’s and USAID’s budget may prove to yield more challenges than reap security solutions. And without an understanding of the way in which everyday women’s lives hold international influence, national security will not ever be guaranteed.