This Commentary was first published as an op-ed in the Washington Post on July 29, 2011

With debt talks at an impasse, foreign policy is the last thing on many American minds. But how Congress and the president deal with the debt will affect US relations with other countries and our national security for years to come.

Americans think of their country as peaceful and generous, but the reality is more nuanced. US armed forces have been actively engaged abroad every year since the fall of the Berlin Wall, sometimes as peacekeepers and sometimes as war fighters. Half the country thinks that one-quarter of the federal budget goes to foreign aid and that it should be cut to 10 percent. The real figure is already just 1 percent. Private financial flows abroad have been larger than official foreign assistance since the early 1990s.

This does not stop Congress from trying to balance the budget by cutting foreign assistance. The House Republican budget proposal would cut “international affairs” 43 percent from the administration’s proposal for fiscal 2012, more than any other portion of the budget. But this would save only $27 billion, less than 15 percent of the total cut the GOP proposed.

Both the administration and House Republicans have proposed cutting a far smaller share of the defense budget, just 3.5 percent. But that would save almost as much, about $26 billion, because the defense budget is more than 10 times the size of the international affairs budget.

Does it make sense to slice the small international affairs budget to the bone, while barely denting the very large defense budget?

The answer depends on the nature of the threats to American national security. Conventional military threats are minimal. In the past 22 years, only twice has a foreign army met US armed forces on a conventional battlefield. The two defeats of the Iraqi army are likely to discourage other challengers for many years to come.

The main national security threats to the United States since the fall of the Berlin Wall have come from less conventional sources: terrorists, insurgents, religious extremists, drug trafficking, nuclear proliferation, computer hackers, pandemic diseases, oil supply disruptions.

Many of these threats arise in countries that are unable or unwilling to govern themselves effectively, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban, Yemen’s largely ungoverned hinterland, Pakistan’s tribal areas, the oil-producing area of the Niger Delta and Mexico’s northern border.

There is a temptation to respond to at least some of these threats with drone strikes or naval maneuvers rather than troops on the ground. Ultimately, that will result in little satisfaction. As we have seen in Yemen and Somalia, drone strikes can kill individual terrorists, but they leave “ungoverned spaces” where replacements breed quickly. Naval maneuvers do little to solve that problem.

Soldiers in uniform are only part of the required response. The Pentagon knows this well; its officials have been outspoken in supporting the budgets of civilian agencies needed to “hold and build” once insurgents are “cleared” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Defense has also spent a good deal of its own money on civilian responsibilities such as economic development, infrastructure repair, school construction and support to religious moderates.

The US military has proved itself many times over in recent decades. Whether responding to the Pacific tsunami or establishing a secure environment in Bosnia and Kosovo, its capacity to deliver relief and lethality over long distances is unmatched.

But using the military to accomplish civilian tasks is a sure-fire way of spending more money for fewer results. US spending on defense amounts to close to half of the entire world’s military budget. Just because we have a really nice power hammer does not mean we should use it to put in a screw, especially if a screwdriver would be cheaper and work better.

The economical way to protect American national security today is to anticipate problems and prevent them from growing worse using all available instruments of projecting national power, civilian as well as military. Building more effective states in Iraq and Afghanistan has proven extraordinarily expensive, time-consuming and uncertain in its results.

We can do far better if we act early, before war makes the challenges too complex. This will mean enhancing our civilian capacities, not cutting them to the bone.

Despite 20 years of experience, we still have few civilians trained and ready to help weak states with defense, law enforcement, democracy, countering violent extremists and promoting religious moderation. These are the areas in which we will require more expertise and capacity for the next 20 years, to protect American national security. Let’s hope Congress and the administration recognize this and respond.

Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.