Robert Zoellick: The Currency of Power

Roundup: Media's Take

Robert Zoellick, former World Bank president, is senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and distinguished visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. This article is adapted from his Alastair Buchan Memorial Lecture at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Earlier this year, Bob Carr, Australia's foreign minister and a longtime friend of the United States, observed with Aussie clarity: "The United States is one budget deal away from restoring its global preeminence." He added a caution: "There are powers in the Asia-Pacific that are whispering that this time the United States will not get its act together, so others had best attend to them."
Carr's insight -- that the connection between economics and security will determine America's future -- is sound and persuasive. Yet ever since the rise of "national security" as a concept at the start of the Cold War, economics has become the unappreciated subordinate of U.S. foreign policy. Today, the power of deficits, debt, and economic trend lines to shape security is staring the United States in the face. Others see it, even if America does not.
Carr, a student of U.S. history, would probably not be surprised to learn that his warning echoes words drafted by Alexander Hamilton, America's first Treasury secretary, for President George Washington's farewell address: The new nation, Hamilton urged, must "cherish credit as a means of strength and security." Ironically, it took an admiral -- Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff -- to recall Hamilton's warning about the link between credit and security. Mullen seized attention not by pointing out a danger to the fleet, but by telling CNN, "The most significant threat to our national security is our debt."
Mullen's observation should not come as a surprise, because strategists in uniform often look to history as their laboratory. They also have to match means and capabilities to achieve ends. Officers at staff colleges may be inspired by the exciting chapters on Napoleon Bonaparte's bold campaigns, but the astute also discover that the key to Britain's victory in the Napoleonic Wars is found in the dry accounts of the budgets of William Pitt the Younger, the chancellor of the Exchequer and prime minister. By restoring Britain's credit after its costly imbroglio with the American colonies, Pitt enabled his country to fight a long war -- and even repeatedly finance coalition partners -- without choking Britain's economy.
In contrast, consider the foreign-policy debates of this U.S. election year. Journalists and commentators expound about wars and rumors of wars, political leaders and upheavals, human rights and duties to intervene, missiles and their defense. All serious and important topics. But how about a question on the eurozone crisis that threatens the integration of Europe, one of the 20th century's greatest security-policy achievements and America's closest ally and partner? What about America's connections to growth in East Asia, where economics is the coin of the realm? The reply is that these topics concern economics, not foreign policy!..

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