Europe’s myopic defence cuts

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If Europeans want their ambitions to be taken seriously, they must find ways of dealing with their decline in military power, writes Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, a former Danish minister of foreign affairs.

The following contribution is authored by Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, a former Danish minister of foreign affairs.

"All over Europe, budgets are being pared as a new age of austerity takes hold. Defence expenditures are proving to be the easiest of targets. Even Britain under the Tory David Cameron has joined the rush to slash defence spending.

These cuts are coming at a time when European efforts to shoulder a fair share of the Western defence burden have been cast in doubt – not least in Afghanistan, where most European countries have limited their participation by insisting on a myriad of 'caveats' that usually serve to keep their troops far from the most dangerous zones.

Defence cuts are also happening at a time when Europe, for the first time in modern history, has been overtaken by Asia in terms of total defence spending. Western Europe's long-held position as the world's most important concentration of military power after the United States and Russia appears to be over.

The US faces no serious challenge (not yet, at least) as the world's dominant military power. After all, the US spends almost as much on its armed forced as the rest of the world combined. But the picture is changing with the rapid growth of China's military expenditure.

The official growth rate of China's military expenditure – 15% per year over the last decade – has increased substantially, and there is much hidden military spending as well. Growing anxiety among China's neighbours, particularly India, has led to remarkable increases in defence spending by other Asian powers as well.

Cuts in European defence spending, moreover, are starting to cause serious tensions within the Atlantic Alliance. NATO is often described as a construction with two pillars and an architrave symbolising the common values that form the basis of the alliance. But even during the Cold War, Americans often pointed out that the European pillar was lacking. Greater 'burden-sharing' was a rote American demand.

This debate may soon heat up again, now that the US, no less than Europe, is faced with grave budgetary problems. Indeed, in a time of austerity, US politicians might find it difficult to understand Europe's willingness to cut defence budgets that already total far less than NATO's official 2%-of-GDP target."

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(Published in partnership with Project Syndicate.)

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