LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Foreign policy analysts and diplomats alike are warning the U.S. to get its fiscal house in order or risk losing influence on the world stage. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describes the nation's debt as a national security issue.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the foreign policy implications of borrowing and spending too much.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Secretary of State Clinton wants to put development and diplomacy on par with defense, but her 3-D approach faces two troublesome Ds: America's debt and deficit.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): It does constrain us, where constraint may be undesirable. And it also sends a message of weakness internationally.

KELEMEN: Clinton made those comments in September, alongside the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass. He has since written an article in Foreign Affairs about how U.S. global influence is declining as debts rise.

Mr. RICHARD HAASS (President, Council on Foreign Relations): It's bad for the United States; let me also add, it's bad for the world. I don't see anyone else stepping up to the sort of role the United States has played in promoting prosperity and stability around the world. And if the United States is unable to lead and act in the ways it has for the past few decades - really since World War II - we're most likely looking at an era of international relations in which things get a lot messier.

KELEMEN: Haass says it is already harder for the U.S. to preach to the group of 20 wealthy nations or be seen as an economic role model while countries like China are prospering. And with China holding so much U.S. debt, Haass says it's easy to imagine the U.S. finding itself in a crisis with China.

Mr. HAASS: Over, say, Taiwan or Iran or Korea, and China disagrees with something that we are doing and in order to put pressure on us, suddenly they quietly or not-so-quietly start diversifying some of their financial holdings.

KELEMEN: He says a Chinese banker could be more of a threat than China's military. It's not that experts are worried that China will take America's place, though. Michael Mandelbaum is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Professor MICHAEL MANDELBAUM (Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Author, "The Frugal Superpower"): There's nobody else to take our place. China is certainly becoming richer and will become more powerful and will become more influential in East Asia, but I don't see China becoming a global power or assuming the kinds of global responsibilities that the United States bears any time soon.

KELEMEN: But the U.S. also won't be able to play the kind of role it has to date, as Mandelbaum points out in this latest book, "The Frugal Superpower."

Mr. MANDELBAUM: I believe the kinds of military interventions that the United States has conducted over the last two decades in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan are going to be discontinued. Because those military interventions, although initiated under two different administrations and for differing reasons, all landed us with the expensive, difficult and frustrating task of nation building.

KELEMEN: Administration officials keep saying they need to invest in countries like Afghanistan to make sure they don't fail and become breeding grounds for terrorists. Mandelbaum argues, though, the U.S. just can't afford it.

Mr. MANDELBAUM: It's just too expensive. I don't think that we can do nation building on the cheap, and in fact there's some question as to whether we can do it at all. So, I think we will deal with the threats that come from failed states not via nation building but rather through intelligence gathering and cruise missiles.

KELEMEN: Others are worried about likely cuts in foreign aid, though. Richard Haass on the Council on Foreign Relations says we are entering the age of austerity.

Mr. HAASS: There's times in life you play in offense and there's times in life you play defense. And if I were the State Department, this would be one of the times I would be preparing for defense.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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