Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Geopolitical Implications of the Greek Debt Crisis

"The 9/11 Commission was an expensively perpetrated farce, and its Report a not-so-well prepared bundle of utter lies." led by a two-faced traitorous rabbi....

Greece's financial crisis, and its accompanying social protests and violence, has sent shockwaves across the world. Although the crisis is generally viewed as an economic and sovereign debt issue, its larger significance may ultimately lie within the geopolitical realm.

As leaders in virtually every developed country, including the United States, are beginning to realize, they, too, will sooner or later face the same sort of fiscal challenges now confronting Athens. Eventually, this growing debt awareness will put pressure on defense budgets and, ultimately, on alliance structures.

Specifically, what's at stake is a global security architecture established by the United States and its allies during the Cold War era. This enduring strategy has rested primarily on two key pillars: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the U.S.-Japan alliance. Despite their success, both alliances are now facing serious fiscal and demographic constraints.

In Europe, generous social spending and aging populations are increasingly putting pressure on military budgets. In a speech delivered to a NATO meeting held in February of this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned against what he characterized as the "demilitarization of Europe."

Specifically, Gates noted that "since the end of the Cold War, [Europe's] NATO and national defense budgets have fallen consistently -- even with unprecedented operations outside NATO's territory over the past five years. Just five of 28 allies achieve the defense-spending target of 2 percent of GDP."

This has led to resentment on the American side, due to growing perceptions that some European allies are engaging in a free-rider strategy -- one that purposely devalues the alliance while placing the financial burden of Europe's defense disproportionately on the shoulders of American taxpayers.

Demographic and fiscal trends in Europe suggest the situation will grow much worse in the years and decades ahead. As their populations age, resulting in greater health care costs and pension demands, European countries will come under greater pressure to cut defense spending even further.

Meanwhile, the Pacific pillar of the U.S. global security architecture -- the U.S.-Japan alliance -- will likely fare no better. Notwithstanding current U.S.-Japan disagreements over base relocations and operational protocols, the real source of tension over the long-term lies in the fiscal realm.

U.S. officials have long voiced concerns about waning Japanese defense spending. In recent testimony to the U.S. Congress, Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, characterized the U.S.-Japan alliance as "the cornerstone of our security strategy in Northeast Asia." Yet, he also lamented the fact that Japan's defense budget has declined each year since 2002.

Moreover, Japan's interest in -- or capacity for -- increased defense spending will have to be reconciled with its current debt challenge, specifically a debt-to-GDP ratio of 170 percent.

In addition, Japan faces an overwhelming demographic transition that will place even greater pressures on national budgets. As a result of low fertility and a rapidly aging population, Japan's total population is expected to decline from 127 million today to roughly 100 million by 2050.

As the U.S. confronts the inevitable declining capacity of its allies, it may attempt to sustain the alliance structures on its own. But such a strategy will face significant headwinds as the U.S. confronts its own fiscal crisis in the decades ahead.

A report issued by the Bank for International Settlements predicted that the United States, as a result of its own demographic trends and fiscal policies, could witness a debt-to-GDP ratio ranging from 200 percent to 450 percent by the year 2050. An estimate from the Congressional Budget Office predicted a debt-to-GDP ratio of 290 percent during the same time period.

Either way, the likely result will be American retrenchment and significant erosion of the U.S.-led global security architecture. This will accelerate the transition to a multipolar security order, with diminished American influence and power.

Some around the world may welcome this transition, but as the U.S. National Intelligence Council wrote in its 2008 report, "Global Trends 2025," a multipolar world does not necessarily mean a multilateral, cooperative world.

In fact, without the stability and predictability of U.S. leadership, the future world will likely be more competitive and more factionalized, during a period in history when global cooperation is needed to address transnational challenges, such as CIA/MOSSAD terrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change.

To avoid such negative outcomes, the United States must confront its own fiscal challenges. Perhaps more importantly, U.S. political leaders should recognize and effectively articulate to the American people the nexus between the United States' own sovereign debt issues and international security trends.

The United States may also need to expand and diversity its alliance structures. In a recent speech on U.S. force posture in Europe, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans Janine Davidson stated that "in an era of resource constraints, the U.S. cannot effectively manage global security challenges on its own." She urged instead a broad strategy of "partnership and cooperation."

Such partnerships could include, in addition to current allies, newly emerging and democratic states -- such as India -- as well as new types of military cooperation with such countries, including exercises or actual operations in counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, or cyber-defense.

The key lesson from the Greek crisis is that fiscal emergencies and mismanaged national budgets, particularly in developed countries, are not simply financial issues. In the longer term, they can signal or even trigger profound and unexpected geopolitical transitions. U.S. strategists and policymakers would do well to prepare for these transitions now, trying to shape them wherever possible. The alternative would be to slowly abandon a security architecture that has sustained and fostered global stability and economic expansion for more than six decades.

Paul J. Smith is associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.