Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta – Official photo by Monica King/U.S. military or Department of Defense Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. – Stock photo by Monica King/U.S. Army



White House


With a new era of geopolitical competition underway with China and the anniversary of a major land war for freedom in Ukraine, nations around the world are turning to the United States to exercise strong and decisive world leadership.

The key to that leadership is credibility in our military power, our diplomatic engagement and our economic stability. Our word must be trusted if our national security is to be protected. The United States is facing more threats in the world than we have had since World War II. Alliances are critical to our ability to preserve peace and prosperity in the 21st century.

As former secretaries of defense, we have had the opportunity to engage with both allies and adversaries. Our word is our greatest weapon with both. If our word cannot be trusted, it will weaken our relationship with allies and empower our adversaries.

The “full faith and credit” of the United States not only underpins our global financial order, but it also constitutes our word in the most literal sense. The consequence of debt-ceiling brinksmanship is a dangerous self-inflected wound that tells both our friends and our enemies that we cannot be trusted. Such brinksmanship weakens our national security.

One year ago, as Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, the world rallied together behind U.S. leadership to impose unprecedented sanctions on Moscow, provide critical weapons, training and ammunition to Ukrainian forces and reinforce our commitment to NATO countries.

All of that is predicated on U.S. global economic leadership and credibility. Our unified actions sent an unmistakable message of strength, not just to Putin but to every other adversary in the world.

As Putin escalates this conflict in a futile effort to break the will of the Ukrainian people, the United States and our allies, he will be watching to measure the credibility of U.S. economic power. To default on our financial obligations at this time would both undermine our own power and encourage Putin to continue his futile war on democracy.

Other tyrants would be encouraged as well. In particular, a default would cripple our strength in the signature competitive dynamic of the 21st century – our competition with China. We compete on technology across the spectrum – from microchips to supercomputers to hypersonic weapons. Yet we have significantly different economic models. The autocratic model of Chinese President Xi Jinping uses state control and centralized planning to advance authoritarian policies and deepen the civil-military fusion that is turning China into a peer rival in the Western Pacific. A debt default would be an unforced economic error for the United States in the face of these growing tensions. It would hand Xi the argument he needs to attack the strength and credibility of the U.S. free enterprise system.

The restoration of U.S. world leadership is taking place at a critical time in the 21st century in the competition between democracy and autocracy. So much of that progress would be undermined by an unnecessary debt default. We have never defaulted before in our history. Not only would default seriously damage America’s economic credibility; it would also weaken our nation’s security by interfering with our ability to pay our troops and maintain military readiness.

Bipartisan commitments to the national security needs of friends and allies would be impacted. Critical weapons and support to Ukraine would be thrown into doubt. Funding for essential civilian and defense modernization efforts would be undermined. The U.S. has never defaulted before, so there is much we do not know about the tragic consequences.

A decade ago, we faced a similar crisis. Defense leaders warned of the consequences – and Congress did the right thing. Today we need similar courage and similar foresight. While we deeply appreciate the need to restore fiscal discipline to the federal budget, it makes little sense to create even greater fiscal chaos by defaulting on the nation’s “full faith and credit.”

A debt ceiling solution does not add a single dollar to the U.S. deficit. It simply says that we stand by our word and that our economy will remain stable and strong. Our adversaries are watching to see how unstable our democracy may be. Our friends are concerned because they too could be vulnerable to the same enemies.

This is about protecting our national security. It is the oath we all take on assuming public office. Republicans and Democrats in the Congress have a responsibility to put country ahead of party. Congress needs to act without delay to raise the debt limit to protect our credibility, our word and our leadership in the world.


Leon E. Panetta served as the 23rd U.S. secretary of defense. Chuck Hagel served as the 24th U.S. secretary of defense.

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