The Real National Security Threat: America’s Debt

Drones, kill lists, computer viruses and administration leaks are all the rage in the current political debate. They indeed merit serious scrutiny at a time when the rules of war, and technologies available for war, are changing fast. That said, these issues are not the foreign policy centerpiece of the 2012 presidential race.

Economic renewal and fiscal reform have become the preeminent issues, not only for domestic and economic policy but for foreign policy as well. As the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, was fond of saying, national debt has become perhaps our top national security threat. And neither major presidential candidate is doing enough about it. This issue needs to be framed as crucial not just for our future prosperity but for international stability as well.

The United States has been running trillion-dollar deficits, resulting in a huge explosion in the country’s indebtedness. Publicly held debt now equals 70% of gross domestic product, a threshold many economists consider significant and highly worrisome. Making matters worse, half of our current deficit financing is being provided by foreigners. We are getting by with low interest rates and tolerable levels of domestic investment only because they find U.S. debt attractive, which may not last.

According to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, President Obama’s long-term budget plan would allow publicly held debt as a fraction of GDP to rise further, up to 75%, within a decade. Mitt Romney’s proposal, featuring tax cuts and defense spending increases and as-yet-unspecified (and thus less than fully credible) entitlement reform, appears worse. It would probably drive publicly held debt to 95% of GDP over the same period. Put differently, though both are serious and pragmatic men, neither major party’s presidential candidate is adequately stepping up to the plate, with Romney’s plan the more troubling of the two.

Why is this situation so serious? First, we are headed for a level of debt that within a decade could require us to spend the first trillion dollars of every year’s federal budget servicing that debt. Much less money will be left for other things. That is a prescription for a vicious cycle of underfinancing for our infrastructure, national education efforts, science research and all the other functions of government that are crucial to long-term economic growth. Robust defense spending will be unsustainable too. Once we get in this rut, getting out will be very hard.

Second, such a chronic economic decline would undercut what has been 70 years of strong national political consensus in favor of an activist and engaged American foreign policy. One reason the United States was so engaged through the Cold War and the first 20 years of the post-Cold War world was fear of threats. But the other reason was that the strategy was associated with improvements in our quality of life as well. America became even more prosperous, and all major segments of society benefited.

Alas, globalization and automation trends of the last generation have increasingly called the American dream into question for the working classes. Another decade of underinvestment in what is required to remedy this situation will make an isolationist or populist president far more likely because much of the country will question whether an internationalist role makes sense for America — especially if it costs us well over half a trillion dollars in defense spending annually yet seems correlated with more job losses.

Lastly, American economic weakness undercuts U.S. leadership abroad. Other countries sense our weakness and wonder about our purported decline. If this perception becomes more widespread, and the case that we are in decline becomes more persuasive, countries will begin to take actions that reflect their skepticism about America’s future. Allies and friends will doubt our commitment and may pursue nuclear weapons for their own security, for example; adversaries will sense opportunity and be less restrained in throwing around their weight in their own neighborhoods. The crucial Persian Gulf and Western Pacific regions will likely become less stable. Major war will become more likely.

When running for president last time, Obama eloquently articulated big foreign policy visions: healing America’s breach with the Muslim world, controlling global climate change, dramatically curbing global poverty through development aid, moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons. These were, and remain, worthy if elusive goals. However, for Obama or his successor, there is now a much more urgent big-picture issue: restoring U.S. economic strength. Nothing else is really possible if that fundamental prerequisite to effective foreign policy is not reestablished.