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What NATO looks like in the age of European austerity

Amid budget cutbacks and a 'diminishing appetite' for war, Europe has turned increasingly to the 'soft power' assignments like training and institution-building.

By Staff writer / December 3, 2010

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, center, addresses the troops on board the Royal Navy’s HMS Ark Royal aircraft carrier. Reductions in deployment and military spending raise new questions about Europe’s role in NAT O.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/file

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Lisbon

When Portugal's Prime Minister José Sócrates welcomed President Obama on Nov. 19 to the NATO summit in Lisbon by announcing 150 additional Portuguese soldiers for Atlantic Alliance's deployment in Afghanistan, it was a surprise to the Portuguese people, who are coping with a growing economic crisis.

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It was also a small exception to a larger trend across Europe of severe cutbacks, including military deployments and defense budgets, even as the European Union solidifies its place as one of the world's top providers of international humanitarian and development aid.

What that trend portends, say a growing number of experts on US-European relations, is a scenario under which the United States is more and more the provider of hard power – or military force – for the North Atlantic Alliance, while Europe turns increasingly to the soft power assignments like training and institution-building that it appears to prefer.

Some European military officials insist the trend is overplayed, adding that it will be Europe that will show the way to a more effective and efficient Atlantic military alliance by stepping up duplication-reducing cooperative ventures and hardware procurement.

'Paper tiger'?

But one statistic nevertheless stands out as a kind of caution light for NATO: Whereas a decade ago the US accounted for just under half of NATO members' defense spending, today the US share is closer to 75 percent – and growing.

Of NATO's European members, only France, Britain, and Greece reach the alliance's goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. And with Britain – along with France, one of Europe's last real military powers – set to reduce defense spending by 8 percent by 2015, the US-Europe divide is only expected to widen.

The trend risks leaving Europe a "paper tiger" that is not taken seriously on the world stage, NATO's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said during the Lisbon summit. Another danger, he warns, is that the US will turn away from Europe and look elsewhere for reliable defense partners.

"We cannot end up in a situation where Europe cannot pull its weight when it comes to security," Mr. Rasmussen said in October. "The United States would look elsewhere for its security partner."

Why It Matters: The United States now accounts for 75 percent of NATO members' defense spending, up from just under half a decade ago. Europe increasingly supports humanitarian and development aid instead. Some experts say the trend risks leaving Europe a 'paper tiger' and the US looking elsewhere for partners.

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