“There are those who say the United States should not be the global policeman. But if not us, who?”

What conservative would make such a hubristic statement in the Tea Party, deficit-slashing, small government environment of 2011? An in-the-bunker apologist for George Bush? An unreconstructed neocon warmonger?

No. It’s from Martin Feldstein, professor of economics at Harvard, president emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and once Ronald Reagan’s chief economic adviser. A conservative and economist of impeccable credentials cannot be imagined, a man of habits arguably more “paleo” than “neo.”

The quotation is taken from his Irving Kristol Award lecture, delivered at AEI’s annual dinner last night. The focus of the lecture was China, but Feldstein’s real topic was America and its international and domestic political and economic future. With his unique ability to extract clarity from complexity, Feldstein made an overwhelmingly persuasive case for America’s ability to continue to lead the world. One passage, in particular, should be broadcast hourly in the White House, the Capitol and the Pentagon:

There are also those who say we cannot afford to be the global policeman. But should we really be deterred from that role when the cost of our entire military budget--including the actions in Iraq and Afghanistan--is now less than 5 percent of our GDP? There is no danger of bankrupting ourselves by so-called "imperial overreach" when we spend less than 5 percent of GDP on defense. And while there is no doubt waste in military budgets and military procurement, that is unfortunately inherent in the congressional appropriation process. Cutting the defense budget would reduce our military capabilities rather than just removing waste.

He wondered, too, whether we would be comfortable with a Scrooge-like grand strategy “limited to protecting our trade, our foreign investments, and our access to oil?” Feldstein’s economics are no “dismal science,” but rather informed by our deepest political principles. The strategic question he posed was, “As the only democratic superpower with the ability to defend and to punish, do we not have a moral obligation to be willing to use that power?”

Read the full text of a superb speech.

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