The US rises higher and higher—not in international status, but in its debt crisis. The US government debt has skyrocketed from $3.5 trillion in 2000 to $34 trillion now, or nearly 125 per cent of its GDP. More than half of this increase is due to waging wars, the rest to Covid expenses and financial crises. American economist Jeffrey Sachs argues, “The biggest contributor to this debt crisis is America’s addiction to war and military spending. We must stop feeding the ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ (MIC), the most powerful lobby in Washington.”
Critical experts accuse the MIC of leading the US into disastrous “wars of choice”—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and now Ukraine. Sachs says the MIC habitually scares Americans with exaggerated “comic book style depictions of villains whom the US as the leader of the Free World must stop at all costs”. The villains include Al Qaeda, Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, the Islamic State and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The MIC also sees the NATO’s eastward expansion as opportunities for east European nations to become new customers of old inventories and newer US armaments.
America’s annual military spending is a staggering 40 per cent of the world’s total, and more than the next 10 countries combined. The US has also unilaterally walked out of nuclear arms treaties. The MIC has reportedly presented a $600 billion proposal to the Congress to modernise US’s nuclear arsenal. The US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) states that military outlays for 2024-2033 will shoot to $10.3 trillion on current baseline.
Like gun activists and billionaires, the MIC is an entrenched lobby, ensuring that military budget reaches every congressman’s constituency—creating jobs, manufacturing and procuring weapons, providing health and retirement benefits. Structural factors like ageing population, rising health care costs and low taxes for the rich add to America’s debt mountain. Japan has the highest debt to GDP ratio, but in sheer numbers, the US has the largest outstanding debt in the world. The CBO calculates US debt will reach 185 per cent of GDP by 2052 if current policies remain unchanged.
But not everyone is critical of America’s enormous debt. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman argues government debt cannot be compared with household debt “because unlike people, governments don’t die.” While individual borrowers are forced to pay back their loans, governments don’t pay back their principal borrowing. They merely service their interest payments.
But as debt increases, so do interest payments. Currently, the US spends $1.8 billion a day on repaying its debt. Rising interest payments threaten America’s future prosperity—it reduces funds available for public investment and sours the American dream of upward mobility. High debt imposes higher interest rate, which makes it harder for families to buy homes, finance car payments or pay for college. Says author David Leonhardt, “During the past 50 years, American incomes have stagnated, inequality has risen, life expectancy and social mobility are down.” High debt also risks another fiscal crisis. Within 30 years, CBO projects that interest costs will be the largest federal spending “programme” and would be more than three times what the federal government has historically spent on R&D, non-defense infrastructure and education combined. That is no trajectory for a superpower.
Not just liberals and economists, but even “thinking generals” say this ballooning debt is a national security threat, impairing the US’s ability to maintain its superpower status. Admiral Mullen, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, warned: “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.”
Pratap is an author and journalist.