COPENHAGEN — All over Europe, budgets are being pared as a new age of austerity takes hold. Defense expenditures are proving to be the easiest of targets. Even Britain under the Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has joined the rush to slash defense spending.

These cuts are coming at a time when European efforts to shoulder a fair share of the Western defense burden have been cast in doubt — not least in Afghanistan, where most European countries have limited their participation by insisting on a myriad of “caveats” that usually serve to keep their troops far from the most dangerous zones.

Defense cuts are also happening at a time when Europe, for the first time in modern history, has been overtaken by Asia in terms of total defense spending. Western Europe’s long-held position as the world’s most important concentration of military power after the United States and Russia appears to be over.

The U.S. faces no serious challenge (not yet, at least) as the world’s dominant military power. After all, the U.S. spends almost as much on its armed forced as the rest of the world combined. But the picture is changing with the rapid growth of China’s military expenditures. The official growth rate of China’s military expenditure — 15 percent per year over the last decade — has increased substantially, and there is much hidden military spending as well. Growing anxiety among China’s neighbors, particularly India, has led to remarkable increases in defense spending by other Asian powers as well.

Cuts in European defense spending, moreover, are starting to cause serious tensions within the Atlantic Alliance. NATO is often described as a construction with two pillars and an architrave symbolizing the common values that form the basis of the alliance. But even during the Cold War, Americans often pointed out that the European pillar was lacking. Greater “burden-sharing” was a rote American demand.

This debate may soon heat up again, now that the U.S., no less than Europe, is faced with grave budgetary problems. Indeed, in a time of austerity, U.S. politicians might find it difficult to understand Europe’s willingness to cut defense budgets that already total far less than NATO’s official target of 2 percent of GDP.

Europe’s problem is not only a lack of military spending, but also poor effectiveness when it comes to the purpose of that spending: the use of force when and where necessary. Europe’s capability of deploying combat forces is simply too small relative to the number of men and women in uniform. It is often half-jokingly pointed out that the number of generals and admirals in some European countries (none mentioned, none forgotten) is glaringly disproportionate to the number of fighting troops.

European military effectiveness is also curbed by different procurement policies, as those countries that produce military hardware prefer to keep orders at home. This is true of weaponry as well as logistical capabilities, where, despite immense efforts over the years to get more out of the shrinking funds, there is still great potential for integration and standardization.

The defense treaties concluded recently by France and the United Kingdom appear to be a good example of what can be obtained through greater cooperation and integration — even though it is a strictly bilateral affair with no direct links to either the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the European Union. But the value of the new “Paris-London Entente” will be limited if both countries cut their defense expenditures so much that their combined strength remains at best unchanged. That Britain plans to fund construction of a new aircraft carrier, but not the planes to fly off of it, suggests that resources for the new entente will be sorely lacking.

Still, French-British cooperation if it does take on real substance could be an inspiration to others, though the challenges to making the agreement viable are formidable. British “Tommies” have to learn to speak French, and French legionnaires will have to learn English — and the limits on the spirit of cooperation will no doubt be found at the entrance to every army, navy, and air force canteen. After all, can anyone imagine French sailors eating “spotted dick” or any other culinary peculiarity of the Royal Navy?

Somewhat more promising is the possible invitation to India to participate in developing, alongside France, Germany, and Britain, the new joint Euro-fighter. India’s commitment to defense spending, and its desire to acquire advanced military production processes, may provide the kind of energy that Europe has been lacking. But with Germany’s Luftwaffe planning heavy cuts to its procurement of Euro-fighters, India may have second thoughts about taking part in the project.

The kind of energy and commitment to defense spending that India represents needs to be injected into Europe, because European rhetoric about playing a strategic global role remains in high gear. But it seems ages since a Belgian foreign minister (as chairman of the EU Council of Ministers) declared at an ASEAN meeting in Singapore in 1993: There are now only two superpowers left, the U.S. and Europe!

If Europeans want their ambitions to be taken seriously, they must find ways to deal with the decline in Europe’s military power. Political leaders will have to tell their constituents that there are limits to how much military budgets can be cut, as the “peace dividend” from the Cold War’s end was digested long ago. Europeans may have to embrace new modes of cooperation among their national armed forces in order to put them to effective use.

Otherwise, not only will Europe’s global political ambitions become untenable, but its allies on the other side of the Atlantic will lose patience with Europeans’ refusal to shoulder their share of the security burden.

Uffe Ellemann-Jensen is a former minister for foreign affairs of Denmark. © 2010 Project Syndicate

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