There's more to the State Department than B-52s, but they do make for the best pictures. Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg
There's more to the State Department than B-52s, but they do make for the best pictures. Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

In foreign policy as in life, budgets generally say more than speeches. You wouldn't know that from the recent 14-page special report on U.S. foreign policy in the Economist, which doesn't even mention the State Department's budget.

Yes, we get the obligatory chart showing the U.S.'s military spending outstripping that of its rivals and partners. But that's only a small part of the U.S. foreign-policy story. On most days, and in most places, the U.S. is not launching drone strikes or streaming B-52s through the skies. Instead, at more than 300 U.S. diplomatic facilities in more than 190 countries, 11,000-plus U.S. foreign-service employees (not including local hires) are issuing visas, hosting delegations, delivering diplomatic bouquets or brickbats, arranging cultural exchanges, or reporting on everything from business conditions to religious freedom. You'd think that where and how the U.S. spends its diplomatic dollars would be of interest to readers interested in this general topic.

Yes, parsing budgets is much less fun than globe-twirling and quote-swapping. But it has its uses: For starters, a look at the trajectory of U.S. foreign-affairs funding does not suggest that it's "time to cheer up," as the Economist puts it, especially when you contemplate the growing amount of money the State Department devotes to building bunkers and the declining amount it spends on public diplomacy. For the last decade, Congress has routinely failed even to complete the authorization process for State Department funding, which doesn't bode well for a robust, consensus-driven foreign policy in the future.

Budget requests also shine useful light on things that might escape notice: The biggest increase in funding in the State Department's request from fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2013, for example, was a 330 percent bump in "Gender Funding," or those programs advancing the status of women and girls. And consider the foreign-policy money, or lack thereof, behind the "Asia pivot" the administration unveiled with fanfare in 2011. For two years thereafter, staffing and foreign-aid levels in Asia actually remained mostly flat. Funding for cultural exchanges by the Asia Foundation and the East-West Center was slashed. Only now, with the fiscal year 2014 budget request, are staffing and aid levels inching up.

So the next time you want to know what's really going on with U.S. foreign policy, focus more on how policy makers spend, not just on what they say.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)