Terms of Engagement

Cancer at the Core

The key to ensuring America's long-term national security is something neither Democrats nor Republicans really seem to understand.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

With the two political conventions behind us, we now have a clear idea of the difference between the two parties on foreign policy: The Democrats want to talk about it, and the Republicans don’t. In fact, the Democrats even want to talk about the fact that the Republicans don’t want to talk about it. Did you notice that in his acceptance speech, Mitt Romney never said a word about the vets? Didn’t that strike you as, well, un-American? Real Americans cherish and honor the vets. It seems that the core of Democratic foreign policy is ending wars in order to turn soldiers into vets so they can get jobs and health care back home. That, and killing Osama bin Laden. If that monster so much as tries to stage a comeback, President Obama will order him killed again. Mitt Romney wouldn’t. He’d be too busy cutting government services to even notice.

That would be a fun debate to have, unless of course Israel launches an attack on Iran, in which case there would actually be something important to argue about. As it is, there will be only one presidential debate on foreign policy, and the rest will revolve around the we’re-all-in-this-together v. you-had-a-chance-and-you-blew-it attack lines. The American people don’t want to hear about the rest of the world. Polls find that no more than 5 percent of respondents consider "national security" or "terrorism" the most important issue; "war/peace" clocks in at 2 percent. The dead giveaway was former President Bill Clinton’s 48-minute lollapalooza on Wednesday night, which included just one throwaway line on foreign policy. Clinton tends to have pretty good instincts on this stuff. It’s a dismaying prospect for those of us who had hoped to spend the next two months watching the cut-and-thrust over drone warfare and the New START treaty.

As a public service, therefore, I suggest a reconceptualization of "foreign policy" in such a way as to provoke an actual debate. At the heart of the national security strategy which President Barack Obama promulgated in 2010 is the premise that a nation’s capacity to project power is proportional to its underlying economic strength. It is the economy, not the military, that is the "foundation for American leadership" and "the wellspring of American power."

In his 2008 campaign, Obama promised to restore America’s global competitiveness. But then, as the economic analyst Matt Miller recently put it in the Financial Times, Obama had to ignore America’s creeping economic cancer in order to deal with the heart attack it was suffering when he took office. When the two sides argue over whether Americans are better off today than they were four years ago, they are debating the effectiveness of that emergency treatment. A fair answer would be that Americans are way worse off than they were before the economic crisis hit in President George W. Bush’s final year, and way better off than they would have been if Obama hadn’t intervened so dramatically with stimulus spending and rescue packages for banks and the car industry.

But the urgency of addressing the short-term problem not only distracted from the long-term one but exacerbated it. Obama added over $1 trillion to the budget deficit by pumping money into the economy and allowing all of the Bush tax cuts to run through the end of 2012. The combination of tax cuts, spending, and the long-term growth of entitlements has pushed the deficit to over $1 trillion; and the cost of financing the deficit, which will grow as the economic expands and interest rates rise, eats up a growing portion of the budget. The net effect is to leave less and less room for the investments Obama would like to make in education, infrastructure, basic research and the like, which, he argued in his speech Thursday night, are central to America’s long-term economic prospects.   

There’s a good argument that the combination of low tax revenue and high entitlement spending poses as grave a threat to American national security as climate change or nuclear proliferation. A recent study by the nonpartisan group Third Way found that entitlement spending has risen from 14 percent of the federal budget, excluding interest, in 1962, to 47 percent today. As entitlements have gone up, investments have gone down, from about a third of the budget 50 years ago to less than 15 percent today. Absent legislative action, that figure will sink to 5 percent by 2040. In effect, the United States will be spending all its money on debt service, the Pentagon, and entitlements.

A debate over America’s long-term competitiveness would, I concede, be something of a dialogue of the deaf, since today’s Republicans don’t believe in public investment, and insist that the country can achieve sustained and inclusive growth with a government radically smaller, as a percentage of gross domestic product, than that of any other major economy in the world. I’m not sure who’s supposed to build all the bridges and airports and electrical grids which elsewhere in the world are being built through public investment, but America is, after all, an exceptional nation. The Republican approach, embodied in vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s Path To Prosperity, proposes deep cuts in Medicare, the single greatest long-term threat to the budget, but increases defense spending, which now constitutes one half of domestic discretionary spending, and cuts taxes yet further, setting a top income tax rate of 25 percent. This would make the question of investment a moot point, since it would produce in very short order the limited government that Third Way projects for 2040.

So the GOP may not have a stronger case on economic competitiveness than it does on terrorism. But Obama has hardly grasped the nettle either. He has presented himself as a champion of the middle class by embracing Bush’s tax cuts for all those earning under $250,000. That may have made sense during the economic crisis, and it certainly plays well politically, but it is simply not a sustainable policy at a time when the baby boom generation is advancing towards retirement. Federal taxes have averaged 18.5 percent of GDP since World War II; you cannot get back to that figure simply by restoring taxes on the rich to Clinton-era levels. Obama also has a cost-containment plan for Medicare, but neither voters nor Democratic leaders want to hear about it, and he avoids the subject in order to concentrate his fire on the Ryan plan. His defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has described the deep cuts in the Pentagon budget triggered by the failed legislative deal of 2011 as "devastating." Right now, Obama is locked in a budget model which severely restricts his choices.

The other day, the New York Times carried a fascinating piece about the Encode Project, a federally financed program which has made striking advances on gene research. The funds come from the National Human Genome Research Project. I noticed that the Obama administration has proposed cutting its $500 million budget by $893,000, while keeping  overall spending for the National Institutes of Health flat. When it comes to gene research, the cancer metaphor is both literal and figurative. Federal support for medical and scientific research both improves the lives of Americans and spurs technological development. Republicans seem to have concluded that federal funding for research is either an unaffordable luxury or an outright waste of money. The Democrats, should they be returned to the White House, will have to re-frame the economic argument to explain to Americans why this and kindred forms of investment are the key to our national security.

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit." @jamestraub1
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