America’s Greatest Challenge: Itself
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

America’s Greatest Challenge: Itself


For all the talk concerning the dangers of new military technologies spreading across the globe, cyberwar, scary missiles dubbed “carrier-killers” in the popular press, or rogue non-state actors launching bold asymmetric strikes that are tough to predict and even harder to stop, if we have learned anything from the (as at the time of writing) unsolved budget and debt ceiling battles here in Washington it is this: the only real danger to America is the harm it can inflict upon itself (and the globe).

Before any discussion can begin about Washington’s self-imposed crisis, let us for a moment take stock of where America is today. All in all, it’s not a bad position to be in.

Consider America’s internal challenges — devoid of all the political musings and hype.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

While issues of debt, demographics and entitlements present future challenges that surely must be addressed over the medium to long-term — compared to the headaches faced by the likes of Japan, China and the EU, America is well positioned and can tackle such challenges if done in a proactive manner. Clearly America is in much better control of its future than leaders in Tokyo or Brussels.

America’s population is growing, its debt is large yet manageable by many estimates and smart entitlement reform could see programs such as Social Security and Medicare continue for the foreseeable future without insurmountable financial burdens.

While Washington would be wise to hold off on declaring a new “American Century,” the future looks hopeful to say the least. And now with an energy revolution powered by shale oil and gas, America could be on its way to true energy independence — something no one could have imagined less than a decade ago.

As America looks out upon the world, even factoring in the wars of the last decade and challenges from rising powers such as China, the U.S. is still an unrivaled power that no nation could hope to supplant in the foreseeable future.

While not as protective as they used to be, the large expanses of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans still serve as a shield from potential conflicts and challenges — especially in the Asia-Pacific. Washington is able to dial up or dial down its level of commitment to a particular region or crisis as national interests dictate. While many are concerned, and rightly so, when it comes to the “tyranny of distance” if U.S. forces were ever called upon to intervene in the Pacific in the midst of a crisis, that same distance also provides Washington with a certain sense of security that most nations can only fantasize about. America’s natural geographic advantages will still serve it well, even in today’s shrinking world.

And yet, politicians here in Washington have created a self-imposed crisis of the worst possible magnitude that serves to only negate American power and influence. The United States could possibly be the first nation in modern history to default on its debt obligations not because of a lack of financial resources, but because of a self-created political crisis. Nothing about the present crisis inspires confidence and instead only further pushes the narrative of American decline into the mainstream.

The ramifications of default– even if just for a day or so — would be catastrophic to America’s ability to influence global events. As they say, perception is often reality. And the perception that the United States, the world’s only remaining superpower, does not have the political fortitude to come to an agreement to pay its bills would be a disaster to its international standing around the globe.

In the Asia-Pacific, where America is thought of as a hedge against China’s rising power and territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, one could see soon, with good reason, a sense of fear creep into the promises Washington has made to its partners and allies. The line of thinking would go something like this, “If America can’t even agree to pay its bills, would Washington come to our aid in a crisis?” Many policymakers, staffers and analysts in Asian capitals I speak with on a regular basis are already questioning Washington’s “rebalance” to the region. A default would only give them a shining example to hang their assumptions on.

Washington would be wise to consider the consequences of its actions. A self-imposed financial crisis would have global ramifications, especially in Asia. The long-term damage to American credibility could be irreparable. As we love to say in Washington “the optics” of the situation would look horrible. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail. The alternative, a debt crisis that could last for days or even weeks, is too horrible to imagine.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief