Australia has been one our closest allies for more than half a century and has served alongside America in "every major conflict since World War I." And yet, as Institute for Public Affairs research fellow Ted Lapkin writes in an op-ed for The Australian, "We Can No Longer Rely on Debt-Laden US," America's escalating economic woes mean it's time for the "lucky country" to rethink its geopolitical options.
This year, the US government will borrow 40c out of every budget dollar it spends and will run a mammoth $US1.65 trillion ($1.59 trillion) deficit.
When Washington's current extravagance is piled upon profligacy from years past, this spend-a-thon brings the US's cumulative public debt to a whopping $14.2trillion. That sum represents 96 per cent of the $US14.8trillion gross domestic product of the US. In other words, the US government owes virtually the annual total worth of all goods and services produced by every US firm and individual. And that's not counting another $US6.3 trillion in state and local government debt and pension obligations.
Remarkably, military spending plays a minor role in the US's looming sovereign debt crisis. For all of its image as a free-market bastion, the US has become much more of a welfare state than is perceived. The real culprits in Washington's fiscal woes are government health and social programs.
Federal and state government payments and subsidies constituted fully one-third of all US wages and salaries paid last year. Medicare, the US government healthcare program for senior citizens, consumed 22.5 per cent of GDP that same year. By contrast, US defence spending - including on the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan - constituted less than 5 per cent of GDP.
The grim upshot of this number crunching is that the US is on a fiscally unsustainable trajectory towards national insolvency. These are the wages of the country's long-standing economic sins. There are only two options for Washington to stave off catastrophe: draconian budget cuts or reducing the real value of its debt by debasing the dollar through inflation. Either way, the economic and strategic consequences for the world will be profound.
Last June, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff portrayed the US's debt burden as "the most significant threat to our national security". Former US Treasury secretary and Harvard University president Lawrence Summers asked in 2009: "How long can the world's biggest borrower remain the world's biggest power?" The answer is: not long. We can't know precisely when the US's fiscal day of reckoning will arrive, but when Moody's warned a few months ago that US Treasury bonds were facing a downgrade from AAA status, you can be sure it's coming.
It was Cicero who said money forms the sinews of war. And in straitened economic circumstances, defence spending is usually the first item to go. We see this in Britain, where the Royal Navy has been cut to the bone and beyond. Without carrier air capability in the fleet until 2019 at the earliest, Britannia won't be ruling the waves anytime soon.
With its own debt burden that mandates both fiscal restraint and an inflationary devaluation of the dollar, the US's strategic wings will be clipped as well. The first round of defence cuts came in January, with $US78 billion over five years sliced from the $US680bn level spent by the Pentagon last year.
But that's only a bit of foreplay to the serious business of getting the US's fiscal house in order. It's inevitable more radical cuts to the US defence budget loom. Given that near certainty, it's time for debate about what a militarily diminished US means for Australia.
Since the end of WWII, we've enjoyed the benefits of stability provided by a Pax Americana in the western Pacific. Even during the worst Asian flare-ups of the Cold War - Korea and Vietnam - the international sea lanes upon which Australia depends were never threatened.
As a result, Australia has consistently short-changed its military establishment, getting away this year with spending a paltry 1.8per cent of GDP on defence.
Australia Defence Association head Neil James notes: "There are three generations of Aussies who've grown up under America's protective wing. They've never even had to consider the possibility that one day they might not be able to rely on US strategic supremacy, free of charge".
But with the US well down the road to economic perdition, Australia can no longer rely on the presumption that the US will have our back.
But it's not just Australia. All you have to do is look around to see that a growing number of countries are reaching a similar conclusion.