Liz Schrayer USGLC
President and CEO, U.S. Global Leadership Coalition
With nonstop headlines on the federal government shutdown, there have rightly been significant concerns raised about the impact on everyday Americans — most of all the tremendous hardship on our furloughed public servants. We have seen the news ring with fears from flight safety to tax refunds to food inspectors. But we also ignore the growing impact on our national security when our diplomats and development professionals work with depleted teams. It was certainly encouraging to see furloughed State Department personnel recalled back to work [prior to re-opening the government] for one pay period. The directive from officials was clear, that as a national security agency, it is imperative that the State Department be able to carry out its mission.
I could not agree more. However, while many of our frontline civilian personnel are going to extraordinary lengths — including working without pay — to ensure minimal disruption to our global presence, it is no way to do business and is not sustainable. While the State Department has found a way to fund its operations for the next several weeks, there is no promise for what happens next, not to mention the number of other international agencies that are impacted by the shutdown. Frankly, it is dangerous.
Looking at the threats around the world, from extremism to Ebola to China, it is clear that we cannot ignore the damage from taking our civilian corps off of the playing field, even for a moment. For over a month, 40 percent of State Department employees working domestically were furloughed along with 23 percent working overseas, about 8,000 personnel in total. Over at the United States Agency for International Development, about 1,700 employees remain furloughed. But even as some personnel are called back to work, they are subject to significant restrictions and strict budget constraints on new spending.
At the Pentagon, we often talk about the power of “military readiness.” Colin Powell brought that same discipline to Foggy Bottom, building into our national security mindset a sense of “diplomatic readiness” for the safety of the American people. But we cannot achieve this if we are not playing with a full deck, especially when nearly a third of employees in the civilian office overseeing the fight against ISIS are furloughed or when the training for new foreign service officers hangs in limbo. Moreover, the State Department had to cancel an upcoming global conference on border security because of a shutdown that is tied to border security.
The world now faces the largest number of people displaced in history at more than 68 million, which is more than at the height of World War II. In our own hemisphere, the crisis in Venezuela continues to spiral with each person losing an average of 25 pounds in body weight. Al Shabaab has reemerged as a potent threat to stability in the horn of Africa, while Ebola continues to spread in the conflict ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, making it the second largest Ebola outbreak in history. Our own diplomats are also preparing for a second presidential summit to defuse the nuclear standoff with North Korea before the end of next month.
While everyone agrees it is the right thing for federal workers to be paid what they are due in back pay, there is no way to recover the time lost not defending and protecting our nation abroad. Any business executive would decry this loss of human capital and energy as we are just a day short of having lost 10 percent of this entire year. This marks a significant loss of investment in American security and economic interests around the world, especially when the United States has had to leave its seat vacant at a number of international forums and conferences.
Some sports allow a handicap for certain players to level the playing field, but the global stage is not one of them, and the stakes are only growing. Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security, noted that the shutdown is “practically doing the Kremlin’s work for it.” But it is not just Russia. China is expanding its own footprint across the globe as the United States takes a timeout. While the South China Morning Post editorial board refrained from showing delight at our political dysfunction, its members wrote that the shutdown “could become a genuine crisis with global impact.” They could be right. Frankly, we do not want to find out.