Can Britain meet its NATO defense commitments?

British Prime Minister Cameron says his country is committed to safeguarding Eastern Europe from Russia and investing in its military, but a new study shows Britain may fall short of the NATO defense-spending guideline of 2 percent of GDP this year.

Jon Super/AP
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the end of the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014.

As leader of the country hosting the NATO Summit in Wales, British Prime Minister David Cameron has flaunted the UK’s defense credentials. He's committed 1,000 troops to a new “rapid reaction” force to safeguard Eastern Europe from Russia, and taken a lead in urging members to increase their spending on defense.

But in reality, the UK is barely meeting its own defense spending goals.

In a paper published today, Malcolm Chalmers, head of research for the Royal United Services Institute think tank, says that in the next financial year, the amount Britain puts toward defense spending could fall to 1.88 percent of GDP. That’s below the 2 percent target that Britain has long demanded of other NATO members.

“I think the UK government has got itself in quite a difficult position on this,” says Professor Chalmers.

His predictions are based on reductions in the defense budget – cuts made in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the winding down of operations in Afghanistan – and the projected rebound of the British economy. To meet a 2 percent target, Britain would have to prioritize the defense budget over health and education spending. “And I don’t think we are yet at the place in this country where defense is given the top place in the pecking order,” Chalmers says.

Britain has long proved its credentials as a global player when it comes to defense. Within NATO, Britain is only one of four members that even met the 2 percent target last year, along with the US, Greece, and Estonia.

The UK is the US’s most reliable partner and is likely to be for the foreseeable future: Britain’s views on the priority of defense comports more with US thinking than does continental Europe. In last year’s Transatlantic Trends survey by the US German Marshall Fund, 28 percent of British respondents said funding on defense should be increased, compared to an average of 14 percent for Europeans (it was 25 percent for Americans).

But Britain is already teetering on the line when it comes to meeting defense-spending expectations, and it is following a pattern already taking place across Europe. In fact, only two NATO member states – Poland and Estonia – are among the nations worldwide that make up the 20 fastest rising defense budgets between 2012 to 2014, says Tate Nurkin, managing director of Thought Leadership for IHS Jane’s. Meanwhile, 13 NATO member states are counted among the world’s 20 most quickly shrinking defense budgets. Britain is one of them.

Britain’s also showing an aversion to military interventions as of late, most notably seen in the parliamentary vote against intervening in Syria last year. “There is some feeling in the UK that we are prepared to do more proportionally than others, but there is a limit,” says Chalmers.

The US and Britain – and those countries geographically closest to Russia – may feel vindicated at the NATO summit, as leaders are expected to recommit to the 2 percent target today.

But many are doubtful that that goal will ever be met, especially by countries like Germany and Canada, which already spend well under the current floor. The commitment is non-binding over a 10-year period. Still, it may signal that defense spending won’t go any lower.

“I don’t believe they’ll ever meet it,” says John Hulsman, president and co-founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk consultancy in Germany. “This will just limit the bleeding, no one will spend less.”

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