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America's key allies slash their budgets

Will Europe still be a key US military partner?

While France and Britain have recently talked about sharing fuel tanker jets, bigger collaborations, such as a European army or more closely shared procurement, are still a long way off, having fallen afoul of domestic politics. The right wing of the British Conservative Party, for instance, wants Her Majesty’s forces to remain entirely Her Majesty’s. The largest recent shared procurement, the A400M airlifter, has been a disaster, with every country wanting something different from the plane, leading to unseemly squabbles.

“If anything is going to happen it will be slow and pragmatic,” said Sophie-Charlotte Brune, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “You won’t see a big, euphoric integration. You’re talking after all about the last bastion of sovereignty.”

But with the exception of Guttenberg’s scrapping of conscription and his drive to create a more modern military, there is scant sign that Europe’s budget-driven cuts are paying much heed to long-term strategic considerations.

Defense budgets still cover territorial defense systems that date from the Cold War, for example, rather than investing in the technology and skills needed for expeditionary warfare.

“It’s pretty clear that we still spend far too much money on Cold War platforms … too many tanks, too many ships, and not really enough communications and surveillance,” said Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “All … strategic analysis has been very thinly addressed. [The cuts] are driven by austerity and the need to restore the fiscal wreckage after the past couple of years.”

For all that, the analysts who spoke to GlobalPost were broadly optimistic that, notwithstanding the current panic over budget deficits, Europe would gradually start working together more effectively. Bleak though his short-term view is, Merritt said he was confident that, with the right reforms, European forces should in the long run become more coordinated and better equipped for 21st-century deployments such as counterinsurgency, peacekeeping and crisis-response.

“We’re a major power if we get our act together,” he said.

The question for now, then, is how strong is the political impulse to make all of that happen any time soon? That is what has been worrying the U.S., as Gates made clear in February in a blunt speech to NATO officials when he said that two decades of peace and prosperity had made Europe complacent.

“The demilitarization of Europe, where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it, has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st,” Gates said.

Two decades since the end of the Cold War, Europeans feel safe on their own soil. And after nearly a decade in Afghanistan, they are suspicious of overseas interventions. There are plenty of domestic issues the average European sees as more pressing than military spending.

“There is a growing question about what European militaries are for, so they are right in the cross hairs for the budget cuts,” Witney said. “If we don’t want to be shoved to the margins of the world by confident, emerging powers … we have to start behaving a bit less like the EU acting like a big NGO and a bit more like a power. A worthwhile military that can put itself about a bit ought to be part of that.”

Nobody suggests that Europe is ready to let the transatlantic alliance slip away. But several analysts stressed that after Afghanistan, it may choose its conflicts more carefully.

“France and Germany … don't see the primacy of the military option,” said Alastair Cameron, head of the European security program at the RUSI think tank. "There is an appetite not to lose that transatlantic alliance, but it depends on ... having a better showcase for their military cooperation than Afghanistan.”