Skip to main content
Forecast and analysis from the brightest new minds
Monthly Archives: October 2012

Security Costs of the U.S. National Debt

In the last Presidential debate of the 2012 election cycle, both President Obama and Governor Romney referred to the U.S. national debt as a growing threat to security. These claims echo the 2011 remarks of Admiral Michael Mullin, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserting that the national debt is the greatest security threat currently facing the United States. In addition to severe economic problems, the inability to resolve the debt issue may result in a weakened ability to pursue military and diplomatic missions, an increase in domestic human security problems, and an expansion of foreign influence regarding U.S. policy.

First, economic weakness constrains the U.S. in its ability to play a leading role in the international community. As the U.S. pays its debt, the amount of money used to pursue U.S. foreign policy objectives must, by necessity, be reduced. Experts and military leaders worry that this reduction of funds will also reduce the ability of the United States to engage in important missions and operations that prevent future terrorist attacks or advance U.S. foreign policy goals. Moreover, domestic economic hardship reduces America’s soft power and its ability to influence other states through economic means in addition to weakened diplomatic and militaristic methods.

Second, the pressure to pay back debts as opposed to investing in building infrastructure and providing services within U.S. borders has the potential to increase human security issues associated with poverty and economic hardship. Greece provides an example of the possible hardships and human security threats: violent protests, appearance of hard-liner and extremist groups possessing views against foreigners or ethnic groups, and the inability of the police to control violence and crime. Should the U.S. be unable to provide a sustainable and functioning safety net, the already growing number of poor will accelerate, simultaneously raising the crime rate around the country.

Finally, the U.S. may be inhibited in pursuing its foreign policy objectives because of pressure from foreign debt holders. Foreign countries own nearly half of the U.S. debt, with China and Japan owning about 42 percent of that debt. These foreign debt holders may be able to use this debt as an instrument to pressure the United States away from seeking its interests abroad. Should debt to foreign countries continue to grow, the U.S. will find itself increasingly constrained by its debtors.

Currently, divisive partisan politics seem to block every path toward reducing the national debt, thus addressing the security issues associated with it. However, one possible step to reduce the national debt is to reduce military spending in the short term. U.S. defense spending in 2011 was about $711 billion, more than the combined $695 billion spent by the next 13 highest defense budgets. Reductions need not be drastic, but are certainly necessary to reducing debt in the long term and can be made without diminishing the U.S’s ability to seek its core interests and jeopardizing national security. The U.S. must also address rising entitlement costs and improve the tax codes among many other steps to reduce its debt. While the path toward reducing the national debt remains extremely difficult, the U.S. cannot afford to ignore the problem and the economic, political, and security issues it will bring in the future.