The Skeptics

The Incredible Shrinking Militaries of Europe

 Great Britain ceased to be a great power when it emerged from World War II militarily victorious but financially ruined. Nevertheless, it still tried to play the part, punching “above its weight in the world,” as Prime Minister David Cameron put it. As such, it has been America’s strongest military ally. But Britain’s pretense of global power is disappearing with London’s announcement of significant military cutbacks.

It’s hard to criticize the British. There are few serious security threats in Europe. Instability persists in some regions, but most Britons probably don’t believe that the Balkans is worth the bones of a single healthy Welsh grenadier. Nation-building missions in Afghanistan and Iraq are even more dubious. London gave up attempting to make the former a protectorate more than a century ago.

Moreover, the government of the British Isles is broke. It’s one thing to playact as a Weltmacht when you’re flush with cash. But when even the hallowed British welfare state faces significant cutbacks, London’s military-greatness game truly is over.

The Conservative-led coalition government has proposed significant reductions in public spending. The Liberal Democrats are taking a particular risk in challenging influential domestic interests.

In return, the Tories had to apply tough love to the armed forces. Defense Secretary Liam Fox managed to fend off calls for cuts of up to 20 percent, but Great Britain no longer can afford to field a military so much larger than its means.

Over the next four years the government plans a roughly 8 percent real reduction in the budget, 10 percent cut in uniformed personnel, one-third reduction in heavy artillery, 50 percent cut in tanks, twenty-five thousand reduction in civilian personnel, assorted naval cutbacks and full troop withdrawal from Germany.

Great Britain still won’t be a pushover. It will remain one of the world’s few nuclear powers, with the globe’s fourth-largest military budget, and will still possess one of the world’s most capable forces. Amyas Godfrey of the London-based Royal United Services Institute said: “it is still our intention to be a small island with global impact able to project our force around the world. And unlike many, like Germany and France, we actually do it.” Britain’s ambassador to America, Nigel Sheinwald, made a similar argument: “Our future force will be the most modern, capable, and deployable of any U.S. ally.”

Still, that’s not a difficult standard to meet.

The government’s decision to maintain carriers reflects the country’s traditional island defense strategy. London’s nuclear weapons will still secure Great Britain against any existential threat and offer Europe some measure of protection separate from that provided by the United States.

However, Britain’s ability to intervene abroad will be substantially diminished. The prime minister reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan, but his nation will find it much more difficult to enter similar conflicts in the future. No worries, though, since London does not plan to back additional foolish American nation-building ventures. Prime Minister Cameron explained that British forces would be deployed “only where key UK national interests are at stake.”

This policy change has horrified American neoconservatives. Who, they wonder, will join the United States in its next attempt at Third World social engineering?

Not the other European countries, which are shrinking their militaries as well. Even the Eastern Europeans, who profess to worry more about Russia, undertake little more military effort. And none of them is interested in Washington’s nation-building expeditions, other than as a means to win U.S. security guarantees.

Europe is unlikely to reverse course, despite NATO’s discussions of a new Strategic Concept and European Union proposals for a Continental foreign policy and defense force. Wrote Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post: “On its home continent, NATO does precious little military contingency planning, preferring to hold summits.”

Both U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed concern over London’s plans. But Great Britain must decide its own policy. American policy makers would not be pleased if foreign capitals lectured the United States on its military spending.

Washington should, however, make clear that the Europeans must deal with the consequences of their decisions. Max Boot complained: “The fact that British defense capabilities are in steep decline means that even more of the burden of defending what used to be called the Free World will fall on our overstretched armed forces.” Only if Americans continue to treat their allies as helpless welfare dependents.

U.S. defense subsidies for Europe made sense in the early years of the Cold War, when the Continent was still recovering from World War II. But that justification disappeared years ago.

Today U.S. security guarantees discourage the Europeans from doing more. Vassilis Kaskarelis, Greece’s Ambassador to the U.S., admitted: “They don’t have the capabilities, because in the last 50 years, the U.S. offered an umbrella in terms of military, security and stability.” Yet The EU alone has more than ten times the GDP and three times the population of Russia.