Globalist Perspective

Can the United States Balance National Security and Economic Reality?

Is the United States living beyond its means when it comes to national security?

Credit: Adam Michal Ziaja/Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • There seems to be mounting agreement that the greatest threats to America may be our own fiscal foolishness, political paralysis and promiscuous military impulses.
  • Our allies seem unconvinced that we know who needs protection from what and happy to remain the beneficiaries — rather than the builders — of military muscle.
  • Domestic political gridlock in the United States has helped produce a serious crisis of global governance.

Security has become an obsession in the United States. This is both natural after 9/11 and strange. Many years ago, we faced the threat of national annihilation 17 minutes after someone in Moscow turned a key. There is no basis to fear this kind of Armageddon now. Yet we are fearful — and this fear is driving us to search for more perfect security.

We have spent a lot of money blundering about in West Asia, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, on a quest for safety from foreign assault. As a result, chronic budgetary imbalances and debt are now the greatest identifiable dangers to our future. Perhaps we should heed the comedian Will Rogers, who once suggested that no nation be allowed to enter a new war until it paid for the last one.

In many respects, we face lessened threats but feel more menaced. In our foreign policy, some say we suffer from enemy deprivation syndrome, a strategy deficit, and delusions of leadership.

If America were a person, not a nation, we could call a psychiatrist. But there’s none available and, even if there were, we might not be able to pay his bill. This suggests that it’s time to start thinking. Those who can no longer live by their wallets or their brawn must learn to live by their wits.

We became accustomed to protecting others militarily during the Cold War. That’s our thing. And we want to keep doing that even when neither we nor our allies can begin to describe what it is we propose to protect them from.

In some ways, we didn’t really need allies during the good old days when we planned for nuclear war in Europe. Now we have conventional capacity shortfalls and would welcome a bit of help from our friends. But they seem unconvinced that we know who needs protection from what and happy to remain the beneficiaries — rather than the builders — of military muscle.

This raises a number of questions:

 Is peace in Europe a serious military problem or a major achievement?

 How do we do more with less when those to whom we’re committed plan also to do less?

 Are rising powers in Asia engines of growth we can ride to restored prosperity or military rivals to be opposed or manipulated?

 Is the use of force really the only means by which to communicate with the Islamic world?

 If we must intervene militarily, can we do so more ergonomically?

 Are the military build-ups and arms races of the past now yielding to those of the future?

Meanwhile, domestic political gridlock in the United States has helped produce a serious crisis of global governance. What do we as a species and as a country do about the security of our environment, energy supplies and other foundations of our well-being as the demand for natural resources escalates and supplies tighten?

There is much more to security than military protection from politically motivated violence by foreigners. The United States was formed — in the plain words of the Constitution — not just to “provide for the common defense,” but also to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, … promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Each of these purposes addresses a key aspect of both personal and national security. Sadly, a dispassionate review of how Americans are doing at these tasks would now raise more questions than at any time in our past.

This leads to another set of questions about the trade-off between security and the economy:

 Are policies that continue to foster the decline of social mobility amidst deepening inequality morally consistent with the establishment of justice?

 Is domestic tranquility really best served by curtailing the protections of the Bill of Rights while erecting ever more elements of a garrison state?

 Can living beyond our means truly promote the general welfare?

 Does burdening our posterity with debt not threaten rather than secure their enjoyment of liberty?

There seems to be mounting agreement that the greatest threats to America may be our own fiscal foolishness, political paralysis and promiscuous military impulses. In the opening years of this century, we have in many ways debased the values that defined us as a nation.

A lot of people are coming to the conclusion that to get our groove back, we need to get our act together. Or perhaps it’s really the other way around. Without rediscovering our national purposes, we cannot hope to reaffirm and serve them.

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About Chas W. Freeman

Chas Freeman was the main interpreter for U.S. President Richard Nixon in his 1972 visit to China and was the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992. He is currently Senior Fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

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