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Opinion

America's debt is creating a security threat to Europe

The US and the West need vigorous economic growth. In order to to that, the US must first reduce the tax and debt burdens of unsustainable entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

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America's combat activities in Iraq are winding down, but the conflict in Afghanistan, which draws us even further into the maelstrom of Pakistan, is far from over and the very concept of a victory in the region is muddied at best. For Europe, the key strategic question is not how best to help an overextended US win this war on terror, but how to find security itself. Should it continue to rely on the US? Should it bolster its armed forces to become self-reliant? Or should it seek out a new security partnership – perhaps a grand bargain with Russia or even with Middle Eastern states opposed to both Israel and the US?

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These aren't theoretical questions. Washington's astonishing moves in Europe over the past two years have made future security for the Continent an urgent present issue.

Washington is hollowing out its defenses

The abandonment in 2009 of the theater missile defense in Eastern Europe as a concession to Russia, followed a year later by a negotiated reduction in nuclear weapons, is breathtaking in its scope. America's friends and allies – and enemies – have concluded that American military power or willpower, or both, is hollowing out.

In a bipolar world where the US and Soviet Union negotiated structured reductions in nuclear arsenals, the SALT and START treaties made sense. But in a world of new nuclear neighbors and a handful of unreliable states striving for nuclear status, these reductions are more likely to accelerate, rather than slow, the spread of nuclear powers.

Iran may well be emboldened in its quest to break through the nuclear threshold because it believes the US and its allies are incapable of responding (as Defense Secretary Robert Gates appears to have suggested in his secret memo to Mr. Obama in January).

For the declared nuclear powers of India and Pakistan, the sharply reduced numbers of nuclear weapons the US and Russia have now agreed to are very much within reach and the temptation to catch up and match the superpower count may be irresistible. Economic security and national security are two strands of the same rope that ties Europe and America together. A fraying of either strand on either side of the Atlantic weakens the whole cord.

The solution for both America and Europe is as simple as it is difficult: vigorous economic growth. Strong growth not only restores jobs and balance sheets; it revitalizes the security infrastructure, giving new leverage to diplomacy. But strong growth is not possible without first reducing the tax and debt burdens of unsustainable entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. History tells us that such steps are politically painful but economically fruitful.

Take the recession of 1920, one of the most severe in US history. Instead of creating new federal programs to stimulate demand (as with the New Deal and the Obama stimulus), President Harding cut taxes and the federal budget sharply, freeing up capital for private investment. These moves helped bring an end to the recession after just 18 months, hastening the Roaring '20s.

There's little political stomach for such moves these days, but there's also no other way out of our current downward cycle of debt.

Walter Andrusyszyn is a former director for central and northern Europe at the National Security Council, and a professor of international business at the University of South Florida.

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