By GERALD F. SEIB Wall Street Journal
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.
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