America's Coming Retrenchment

How Budget Cuts Will Limit the United States’ Global Role

The acrimonious negotiation that produced legislation to raise the American debt ceiling while cutting the federal budget deficit, which President Barack Obama signed on August 2, was an early skirmish in the battle to bring deficits under control. That battle is bound to be protracted, difficult, and contentious, and one of its casualties will be spending on foreign and security policy, which will decline in the years ahead. That will impose new limits on the projection of American power around the world.

What a difference a year makes. Only last year, in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, I published a review (“Overpowered?”) of three books whose common theme was that the United States was doing far too much beyond its borders. For its own sake and the sake of other countries, the three authors recommended, the country should pursue a more modest foreign policy. Now, as I forecast at the end of that essay, the fiscal condition of the United States will compel the fulfillment of that recommendation -- for better (the general sentiment of the books’ authors) or for worse (my own view).

The August 2 legislation calls for $1 trillion in spending cuts over a ten-year period, about $350 billion of which is likely to come from the defense budget. The legislation also mandates a further $1.5 trillion reduction in expenditures in the next decade. If a special Congressional panel cannot agree on the targets of those reductions, an automatic trigger will impose across-the-board budget savings that will lower the Defense Department’s budget by an estimated $600 billion. 

Even if the triggering mechanism is avoided, spending on defense and on other aspects of U.S. foreign policy will decline over the next decade. The scale of deficit reduction required to put the country on solid fiscal footing is so large that it must involve both limits on Social Security and Medicare, despite the Democrats’ determination to preserve these programs intact, and increases in taxes in some form, despite the Republicans’ determination to prevent this. When Americans are paying more to their government and getting less from it, they will not be as generous in supporting the United States’ global role as they have been in recent decades.

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