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British Military Spending Cutbacks Spark Global Concern


For decades, American and British leaders have criticized the rest of Europe for spending too little on military defense, but now Britain's military is shrinking. This worries the U.S., especially as a perceived threat from Russia continues to grow. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from London.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: At the NATO Summit in Wales last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron played two roles - host and scold.


PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: Britain is only one of four countries that currently spends two percent of its GDP on defense.

SHAPIRO: He bragged about how much the U.K. does to hold up its end of the military bargain in Europe.


CAMERON: We have the second-largest defense budget in NATO, we have the biggest in the whole European Union.

SHAPIRO: At that meeting in Wales, all of the NATO member countries agreed to what they called a defense investment package. Everyone promised to spend at least two percent of their budget on defense. Now less than a year later, it looks like Britain may fall short of its pledge. Malcolm Chalmers is Research Director at the Royal United Services Institute, a non-partisan defense think tank in London.

MALCOLM CHALMERS: The U.K. government is committed to a reduction in the level of public spending, which is unparalleled in our own history and pretty remarkable compared with other European countries.

SHAPIRO: Chalmers just authored a report saying the British army may soon shrink to its smallest size since the American Revolution.

CHALMERS: I think, understandably, the U.S. government is worried that if the United Kingdom falls below the two percent that it will encourage others to do even less.

SHAPIRO: In January, Prime Minister Cameron met President Obama in the Oval Office. After the reporters left, Obama raised this issue of British defense spending. A British government official who was in the room says it wasn't really a warning, that the conversation was more along the lines of we really value your leadership on this issue and hope it continues. The warnings have come from others.

SAMANTHA POWER: This is concerning.

SHAPIRO: Samantha Power is the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. This week in Brussels, she talked about the ominous consequences of shrinking military budgets in Europe. Then she spoke to the BBC.


POWER: The number of missions that require advanced militaries to contribute around the world is growing, not shrinking.

SHAPIRO: A week earlier, U.S. Army Chief Ray Odierno told a British newspaper that he's, quote, "very concerned about Britain's shrinking military investment." This is happening two months before British elections, where both major parties have said they intend to cut the military. Cameron spoke about it during a recent campaign stop.


CAMERON: I know, because I spent time with President Obama and others, how much they appreciate the fact that Britain is a very strong and capable partner, and able to fight with them - when it's in our national interest - anywhere in the world.

SHAPIRO: That description masks the strong concern wafting over from across the Atlantic.

IVO DAALDER: I think we're at a turning point.

SHAPIRO: Ivo Daalder was U.S. ambassador to NATO at the start of the Obama administration. He's now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

DAALDER: We're at a point at which Europe either gets very serious about its own defense or it may find security threats that it hadn't conceived likely emerging in ways that it can't deal with effectively anymore.

SHAPIRO: If those threats do emerge, then the U.S. may have to decide whether it's willing to be Europe's cavalry riding to the rescue. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.

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