Europe Slashes Its Defense Budgets

The global arms race is slowing for only one major contestant, Europe, with potentially long-range implications for its status as a big power. Despite the worldwide recession, global arms sales rose 4 percent last year, with the U.S. and China leading the pack at $607 billion and $85 billion, respectively. Russia, too, has been bumping up its defense budget, now at $58.6 billion, in hopes of regaining its Soviet Union-level capabilities. But in Europe, cash-strapped governments are slashing defense budgets in favor of propping up popular social programs.

Already this year, Italy has downsized its defense spending by about 7 percent and Spain has cut about 4 percent. Analysts are predicting that Britain's roughly $60 billion annual defense budget could face cuts as high as 25 percent in coming years. And top military and civilian officials, including Lord Paddy Ashdown, are calling for a new defense posture that fits leaner times. That could mean abandoning plans to shell out more than $38 billion to replace Britain's fleet of Trident nuclear submarines, and building only one (or neither) of an $8 billion pair of aircraft carriers, which ceremonially began construction last week.

Over the long run, such a downgrade in firepower would leave Europeans even more ill equipped to support the transatlantic alliance in trouble spots like Afghanistan. It would give Russia an advantage in dealing with sensitive issues such as energy security and NATO expansion. And for Britain, the thought of giving up its nukes will raise fears of someday having to relinquish its seat on the U.N. Security Council, leaving France as the superior power in Europe. Last year the French overtook the British in total arms spending at $65.7 billion and passed a defense budget that actually raises spending in 2012. Germany also plans modest increases, although neither country's plans are now realistic, given that the downturn is expected to linger longer in Europe than in the U.S. and Asia.

A new report from Britain's Institute for Public Policy Research urges European countries to pool their defense resources, to avoid being eclipsed by well-armed powers to the east. Some experts even suggest merging national forces if countries hope to continue pulling their weight in important multilateral organizations. That level of cooperation would send a message to Washington and Moscow that Brussels has teeth, but it's not likely to happen. So for now, the message is that Europe is increasingly content to be a soft power, socially responsible but militarily vulnerable.