At a time when national consensus on anything is rare indeed, here’s one example: The balance between our spending on military forces and other security tools – like diplomacy, nonproliferation, foreign aid and homeland security – needs to change.

Here’s what U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says: “Funding for nonmilitary foreign affairs programs … remains disproportionately small relative to what we spend on the military.”

Here’s what a group of 50 retired three- and four-star generals and admirals, led by former CENTCOM commander, retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, says: “Our military mission has continued to expand as funding for the State Department and development agencies has been inadequate to the tasks they have been asked to perform. … It is time to rethink and rebalance our investments to create a better, safer world.”

And Thomas Fingar, the U.S. intelligence community’s top analyst, concludes that U.S. military power will be “the least significant” asset in the increasingly competitive world of the future.

Meanwhile, according to the Pew Research Center, between 2002 and 2006 the proportion of Americans who believe that military force can reduce the risk of terrorism dropped sharply, from 48 percent to 32 percent.

Gates, who had the power to be the agent of the change he claims he wants, didn’t exercise it. In the last budget he will be officially responsible for, he made the problem worse, with a 36 percent increase in defense spending. Zinni points out that this increase is roughly equivalent to the total budget for nonmilitary international affairs.

As Barack Obama and John McCain compete for the mantle of “change,” they’ll need to show in what ways their administrations will depart from the military-dominated foreign policy of the past eight years.

Both candidates have cited increasing spending on nonmilitary foreign engagement as a key security measure. In July, McCain said, “[Foreign aid] really needs to eliminate many of the breeding grounds for extremism, which is poverty, which is HIV/AIDS, which is all of the terrible conditions that make people totally dissatisfied and then look to extremism.”

About the same time Obama said, “As president, I will make the case … that [development assistance] can be our best investment in increasing the common security of the entire world and increasing our own security.”

Both have also paid some rhetorical attention to the other side of the equation – citing the need to cut funding for unneeded weapon systems.

McCain has mentioned only three: the C-17 transport plane (which didn’t get any new money this year anyway), the Airborne Laser program and Future Combat Systems (FCS).

Obama has gone further, pledging to cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful Pentagon spending, including “unproven missile defense systems,” to slow the FCS, make deep cuts in the nuclear arsenal, and create an independent defense priorities board to help take security decisions out of the realm of politics.

We can help the next president add to his list, and connect the dots between these two commitments to increase nonmilitary foreign engagement and cut wasteful military spending. Since 2004, we have headed up a team that has produced the annual “Unified Security Budget for the United States.” This report’s latest version, just released, identifies $61 billion in Pentagon cuts that can be made with no damage to our security. And it outlines $65 billion in increases for key priorities in the International Affairs and Homeland Security budgets.

One example: The $3.2 billion necessary to fund the Transit Security Agency’s 17 priority action items could be paid for by canceling the unneeded DDG-1000 destroyer. Another: the $350 million necessary to fill the shortfall of 1,000 positions in the diplomatic corps could be found by forgoing just one F-22 Raptor fighter jet.

Gates has also pointed out why it is so hard to make these changes. In noting that the entire diplomatic corps, about 6,500 people, is smaller than the staff of a single aircraft carrier group, he put his finger on why. “Diplomacy,” he said, “simply does not have the built-in, domestic constituency of defense programs.”

In this season of “change,” we need to change this mindset so that we can achieve the right balance in our national security budget.

Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Lawrence Korb is a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, both in Washington. They led a team that produced the report, Unified Security Budget for the United States, FY 2009.

Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, writing and speaking on demilitarization issues for its Foreign Policy In Focus project.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.