03/05/2014 07:58 am ET Updated May 05, 2014

America: Paying the Piper

One of the lessons we teach our children, when their underdeveloped decision-making machinery is still in charge, is simply this: "If you make that decision now, you will have to live with the consequences later." It is a lesson about the need to consider the implications of a decision. It is a lesson we seem to have neglected in our national life.

As one case in point, President Obama issued a "red line" warning to Syria about its use of chemical weapons. Yet, when they were used, he lacked the will, the public support, and to some extent the means to follow through. One wonders if he fully considered the implications of his initial warning before giving it.

Faced with Russia's military occupation in the Ukraine, Secretary Kerry announced that there will be "grave consequences." Yet Mr. Putin could be forgiven for wondering if the United States has more than bluster at its disposal. This is not to suggest that the answer is a military response. It is to argue that one result of our failure to think about the implications of our "red line" warning in Syria is that we have diminished the seriousness of our foreign policy pronouncements.

It is not just our words that may be discounted. Our resources to act on those words are also discounted. The world knows we are a nation deeply in debt, tired of war, and with an exhausted military. Nor is this just a problem in international affairs. Domestically, we have a range of problems -- from our infrastructure to our social programs to our need for research and development -- where we have heard bold promises not matched by action or resources.

Our ability to address both international and domestic problems is, in fact, constrained by actions we have taken over the past four decades - actions whose implications we did not adequately consider.

It would be easy -- and wrong -- to fault this president, or any president, alone for all this. As with most troublesome situations in our national life, the problem has been years in the making.

In 1973, we ended conscription as a way to recruit the armed forces, a decision taken in considerable measure due to strong opposition to the Vietnam War. The all-volunteer force that emerged is no doubt more professional, but it is also more costly and more likely to become worn down if subjected to repeated deployments. Did we consider these implications -- and how to address them -- when we ended the draft?

In the 1980s, we began a decades-long attack on the federal government, characterized in part by persistent calls to cut taxes and lower spending. Since the former has proved far easier than the latter, we now have a $17 trillion dollar debt growing at nearly $1 trillion a year. Once again, the implications of our decisions are now becoming evident.

In recent decades, the average age of the American population has been rising, and it has become clearer that social support programs for the elderly will take up an increasing share of the federal budget. Calls to admit this problem have had some success; proposals to address it through higher taxes or limits on benefits have had none. And thus the budget squeeze tightens, as does our freedom of action to meet international and domestic needs. Where was our thinking about implications -- and how to address them -- when we enacted these social programs?

Between 2001-2003, we launched two wars, whose total cost is well over $1 trillion. No taxes were raised to pay for them. Given that the all-volunteer force was fighting them, the decision to go to war may have been too easy. Yet, as we are learning again, Americans don't like long wars, especially when they did not commit themselves fully to them at the outset. Were we thinking about the implications of these wars when we launched them?

The United States is by no means a paper tiger. But it is a weaker one. As for our children, so for ourselves, paying the piper is hard. For the future, focusing on three areas may help us avoid decisions whose implications have been unconsidered or ignored. First, we need to look for leaders who think more carefully about the downstream effects of their current rhetoric and decisions. Second, we are too prone to want irresponsible promises and to willing to elect leaders who make them. Third, since it is hard for leaders in a democracy to get too far ahead of those they lead, we have a responsibility to think longer term as well, and to realize that we have conspired in our own impotency. Until we are ready to meet challenges with self-sacrifice, we will continue to find ourselves mostly at the mercy of events over which we wish we had more control.

There is nothing inevitable about "America's decline." There is nothing inevitable about lacking the will and the resources essential to our needs and dreams. These are not outcomes written in the pages of history, unless we write them.