The tragedy is that he had to rob Peter to pay Paul because Britain can't maintain 7,000 troops in Iraq and 7,000 in Afghanistan. Those are hardly huge numbers for a country of 60 million with the fifth-largest national economy in the world. Yet even as Britain has continued to play a leading role in world affairs, it has allowed its defenses to molder.
The total size of its armed forces has shrunk from 305,800 in 1990 to 195,900 today, leaving it No. 28 in the world, behind Eritrea and Burma. This downsizing has reduced the entire British army (107,000 soldiers) to almost half the size of the U.S. Marine Corps (175,000).
Adding all of Canada's 62,000 active duty soldiers to the British Army equals the manpower of the Marine Corps. The US does have the largest defense expenditures in the world at a shade over $500 billion a year, but that is just 4% of GDP and nowhere near Cold War-level expenditures, which were often 9% of GDP or higher. Meanwhile, Euroland has dropped its GDP expenditure for defense to 1.9%, on average. All of the EU armed forces together -- a geographic and economic power equal or greater in size to the United States -- can't muster a force anywhere near ours, and is woefully lacking in force projection, the ability to get boots on the ground around the world.
Why does the US "go it alone"? Because we functionally "go it alone" even when our allies come on board, in terms of numbers and capabilities. Barring some tectonic shift in European politics and budget priorities, even the "full support" of our traditional allies amounts to little more than political cover and a pat on the back. This is one of those times where appearance is more important than reality, because the reality is that if we fight in the future we'll be on our own in the field. Our French, German and British friends may stand behind us, but the reality is that they'll for the most part be behind us indeed -- like, back in Paris, Berlin and London.
This is not disparagment of the British or Canadian soldiers that take risk equal to our troops in Afghanistan, they are widely-regarded as extremely capable and brave troops especially for the numbers of them in theater. But it sure would help if there was no need for a qualifier after "extremely capable and brave troops". Canada in particular is doing yeoman work in Afghanistan, and the Conservative PM Stephen Harper is taking flak for the strain on the Canadian Forces to keep their troops there. The help of their troops is greatly appreciated, it would be easier on their troops if their societies would put more resources into defense. Many of the non-British and non-Canadian NATO troops in Afghanistan are forbidden by their governments from taking offensive action, even though operations in Afghanistan are supported and approved by NATO. While there are combat support jobs that need doing, that doesn't strike me as quite the same level of commitment the Canadians and British are showing. Not only are our combat troops defending American freedom and the principles of the nations of NATO, they're also fighting and dying in Afghanistan in part to defend European nations' right to a thick social safety net at the expense of their ability to project power.
Robert Kagan covered this well in Of Paradise and Power, a look at how America and its European allies interact in the post-Cold War period. He argues that there was a window for the EU to form a counterpole to America's default unilateral power after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that in essence Europe chose to buy into the Peace Dividend concept rather heavily. Part of Europe's reluctance to recognize the War on Terror as a War is their general position on Arab-Israeli interactions (it's the Jews' fault) and possibly more experience dealing with domestic terrorism, but another factor may be the Europeans' inability to participate in a war. They're simply not prepared. The EU's iffiness on whether Darfur requires UN intervention is likely due in part to the reality that if the EU declares a genocide, there's little they can do about it militarily.
The EU likes the soft power of trade and sanction and strongly-worded diplomatic notes because that's about the only power they have left. It's not inconsiderable power, but if boots on the ground become necessary that's a situation that only highlights Europe's impotence in that regard. Why encourage even righteous beat-downs of international criminals if it shows that the defense cupboard is bare because of decades of neglect? The last genocide on record happened over a period of years in Europe in the 1990s, and only when the US showed up to drop 96% of ordnance in a "joint" operation against Serbia in 1999 was the genocide stopped. Next time you're out to dinner with someone, offer to pay 4% of the check and see how much your companion appreciates you telling others you split the bill.
Where this becomes a problem is when the US feels the need to use the military force it has retained since the Cold War. The result is almost inevitably elitist disdain of our decision to have guns AND butter, rather than a whole lot of subsidized EU-certified butter. We can count on this attitude, no matter the issue, until the EU is able to field a force on par with US forces. It's not outside their capabilities, but from a political standpoint it does seem to be beyond their conception.
I belive I'll pick up Max Boot's latest book for our upcoming cruise.
Britain Army Hyperpower EU Max+Boot