Stephen M. Walt

Health care and national security

A while back I commented on the two imbalances of power that drive American grand strategy. The first is the gap between the United States and the other major powers, which makes Americans think they are responsible for managing much of the world and convinces them that they can do so with near-impunity. The second ...

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A while back I commented on the two imbalances of power that drive American grand strategy. The first is the gap between the United States and the other major powers, which makes Americans think they are responsible for managing much of the world and convinces them that they can do so with near-impunity. The second imbalance is the strength and political clout of a host of different institutions and interest groups whose common agenda is encouraging greater international activism on the part of the United States. In recent decades, the forces in favor of “doing more” have been better-funded and better-organized than those who favor greater restraint, which is one reason why we spend so much on defense and why we find ourselves entangled in intractable conflicts on several continents.

But when I read some early reports about the Obama administration’s health care plans, I began to wonder if the various forces that favor global activism are going to face stiffer opposition in the future. We are likely to have a sluggish economy for some time to come and the U.S. population is getting older. Virtually everyone agrees that serious health care reform is badly needed but will cost a lot. Plus, Obama’s various economic recovery measures are going to saddle us all with record deficit levels. Us baby boomers are not exactly noted for our altruism, and my generation is going to put a lot of pressure on politicians to deliver the entitlements we’ve been promised. All of this means that budget dollars are going to be very tight, and the Pentagon is going to face tougher scrutiny when it brings in gold-plated requests. The Nation and Mother Jones may not be all that formidable a political opponent, but what about the AARP?

One of the great triumphs of Reagan-era conservatism was to convince Americans that paying taxes so that the government could spend the money at home was foolish and wrong, but paying taxes so that the government could spend the money defending other people around the world was patriotic. Ever since Reagan, in short, neoconservatives supported paying taxes to promote a U.S.-dominated world order, while denouncing anyone who wanted to spend the money on roads, bridges, schools, parks, and health care for Americans as a “tax and spend liberal.” But if I’m right about the emerging fiscal environment, that situation may be about to change.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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