Fiscal responsibility, national security are linked

In November, we joined the Coalition for Fiscal and National Security, a group of former senior government officials and former leaders in Congress from both parties, chaired by Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to lay out principles and priorities for America’s national security. At the core of our work is a shared belief that in the 21st century, U.S. security rests on both economic and military strength. Economic growth and national security are inextricably linked, for our ability to remain a global leader — both militarily and diplomatically — ultimately rests upon a vibrant, growing economy.

Today, our economic strength and national security are threatened by a growing menace: our unsustainable long-term debt. Indeed, we believe that our long-term debt is the greatest threat to America’s national security. Unless we change course, America’s strength and global leadership will be slowly undermined as a greater share of resources is devoted to servicing our debt rather than funding our military and diplomatic priorities, and investments in education, research and infrastructure that are critical to economic growth.

The seemingly endless partisan warfare over current and future fiscal policy — have already impaired our economy by injecting fear and uncertainty into an already fragile economic recovery. It is doubly troubling to consider the effect of unsustainable fiscal policies and political gridlock over the long term. If debt and interest payments are allowed to soar ever higher, America will be a weaker country.

Improving our long-term fiscal outlook starts with an urgent priority — averting the fiscal cliff. But Congress and the president should go further. Our leaders should use the consensus against going over the fiscal cliff as an opportunity to agree now on a formal framework and process for significant fiscal reform in 2013. 

This framework should include substantial deficit reduction over the next 10 years and structural changes to our fiscal policies that eventually balance the budget over the long term. Policymakers should target specific levels of revenue, spending and deficits over the next 10 years, and parameters for longer-term fiscal reform, including future levels of debt as a share of the economy, and a date by which the budget must balance. 

Tax reform should raise more revenues, encourage growth and enhance progressivity — whether done through eliminating deductions, increasing rates or effecting more fundamental changes to the tax code. Both sides should agree to entitlement changes that put these vital programs on a sustainable long-term path, as well as changes to discretionary spending, all while protecting the most vulnerable Americans and preserving sufficient resources to invest in the future.

As for national-security spending, in previous eras, increased defense spending may have been required to maintain security. That is no longer the case. In our judgment, advances in technological capabilities and the changing nature of threats make it possible, if properly done, to spend less on a more intelligent, efficient and contemporary defense strategy that maintains our military superiority and national security. This reassessment should be done on its own merits, but it also has positive fiscal implications. The key questions will be whether we spend enough on the right priorities, and whether we spend too much in areas that buy us little, if any, additional advantage. We must maintain our global leadership without wasting precious resources.

The results of this assessment can yield material savings through utilizing manpower more efficiently — while preserving the all-volunteer force and supporting their families — reforming personnel compensation structures and overhauling Defense Department appropriations. We can also invest in meeting the challenges of our complex international system by bolstering the non-defense aspects of national security, such as the State Department and other diplomatic resources, which can serve as a catalyst for collective action and encourage other nations to bear their share of responsibility in the global arena.

While policymakers will differ over the exact nature of the policy changes that must be made, one fact is absolutely clear and unavoidable: Congress and the president must put America on a more sustainable long-term fiscal path. The future strength of our economy and the security of our nation depend on taking action now. Finding agreement will require Democrats and Republicans to set aside party differences and come together behind the one goal that brought them to Washington in the first place: Making our nation stronger. 

As the year ends, we urge the president and Congress to consider how fiscal responsibility and American national security are vitally linked. The need for bipartisan action on the fiscal cliff presents an opportunity to strengthen both.

Brzezinski is former national security adviser and Warner is a former secretary of the Navy and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.