The federal budget deficit has long since graduated from nuisance to headache to pressing national concern. Now, however, it has become so large and persistent that it is time to start thinking of it as something else entirely: a national-security threat.
The budget plan released Monday by the Obama administration illustrates why this escalation is warranted. The numbers are mind-numbing: a $1.6 trillion deficit this year, $1.3 trillion next year, $8.5 trillion for the next 10 years combined—and that assumes Congress enacts President Barack Obama’s proposals to start bringing it down, and that the proposals work.
These numbers are often discussed as an economic and domestic problem. But it’s time to start thinking of the ramifications for America’s ability to continue playing its traditional global role.
The U.S. government this year will borrow one of every three dollars it spends, with many of those funds coming from foreign countries. That weakens America’s standing and its freedom to act; strengthens China and other world powers including cash-rich oil producers; puts long-term defense spending at risk; undermines the power of the American system as a model for developing countries; and reduces the aura of power that has been a great intangible asset for presidents for more than a century.
“We’ve reached a point now where there’s an intimate link between our solvency and our national security,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior national-security adviser in both the first and second Bush presidencies. “What’s so discouraging is that our domestic politics don’t seem to be up to the challenge. And the whole world is watching.”
In the 21st-century world order, the classic, narrow definition of national-security threats already has expanded in ways that make traditional foreign-policy thinking antiquated. The list of American security concerns now includes dependence on foreign oil and global warming, for example.
Consider just four of the ways that budget deficits also threaten American’s national security:
• They make America vulnerable to foreign pressures.
The U.S. has about $7.5 trillion in accumulated debt held by the public, about half of that in the hands of investors abroad.
Aside from the fact that each American next year will chip in more than $800 just to pay interest on this debt, that situation means America’s government is dependent on the largesse of foreign creditors and subject to the whims of international financial markets. A foreign government, through the actions of its central bank, could put pressure on the U.S. in a way its military never could. Even under a more benign scenario, a debt-ridden U.S. is vulnerable to a run on the American dollar that begins abroad.
Either way, Mr. Haass says, “it reduces our independence.”
• Chinese power is growing as a result.
A lot of the deficit is being financed by China, which is selling the U.S. many billions of dollars of manufactured goods, then lending the accumulated dollars back to the U.S. The IOUs are stacking up in Beijing.
So far this has been a mutually beneficial arrangement, but it is slowly increasing Chinese leverage over American consumers and the American government. At some point, the U.S. may have to bend its policies before either an implicit or explicit Chinese threat to stop the merry-go-round.
Just this weekend, for example, the U.S. angered China by agreeing to sell Taiwan $6.4 billion in arms. At some point, will the U.S. face economic servitude to China that would make such a policy decision impossible?
• Long-term national-security budgets are put at risk.
This year, thanks in some measure to continuing high costs from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. will spend a once-unthinkable $688 billion on defense. (Before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, by contrast, the figure was closer to $300 billion.)
Staggering as the defense outlays are, the deficit is twice as large. The much smaller budgets for the rest of America’s international operations—diplomacy, assistance for friendly nations—are dwarfed even more dramatically by the deficit.
These national-security budgets have been largely sacrosanct in the era of terrorism. But unless the deficit arc changes, at some point they will come under pressure for cuts.
• The American model is being undermined before the rest of the world.
This is the great intangible impact of yawning budget deficits. The image of an invincible America had two large effects over the last century or so. First, it made other countries listen when Washington talked. And second, it often—not always, of course, but often—made other peoples and leaders yearn to be like America.
Sometimes that produced jealousy and resentment among leaders, but often it drew to the top of foreign lands leaders who admired the U.S. and wanted their countries to emulate it. Such leaders are good allies.
The Obama administration has pledged to create a bipartisan commission charged with balancing the budget, except for interest payments, by 2015. The damage deficits can do to America’s world standing is a good reason to hope the commission works.