First of all, Americans should be grateful that Britain isn’t cutting more. When you contrast Britain’s defence effort to the rest of Europe’s, Britain still stands out as making a genuine effort.
That’s worth a cheer right there.
The average European Nato nation spends only 1.5 per cent of its income on defence, and that average includes Britain. Only Poland, which counts, and Greece, which doesn’t, make a larger proportionate contribution to the alliance. Germany spends a pathetic 1.2 per cent on Nato.
Of course, Nato’s two per cent is a political totem. The point of defence, after all, is to provide Armed Forces commensurate with the nation’s needs. And two per cent is Nato’s target only because most Nato members don’t meet it. It’s a floor, not a ceiling.
UK officials usually remind me that Britain, almost alone in Nato, still meets that two per cent floor. But – between friends – Americans know it’s not true. Under Nato’s definition, for example, defence spending includes pensions paid to retired members of the Armed Forces.
Now, I have no doubt that Britain should pay those pensions. But that money isn’t buying any defence today. Osborne’s pledge continues Britain’s tradition of counting lots of spending on defence that doesn’t actually defend.
All of this is technically within Nato’s rules. But that’s the point: Osborne’s announcement is about meeting the Nato target as defined by those rules, not about assessing what Britain needs and basing his budget on that assessment. This is fundamentally a box-checking exercise.
It’s certainly better to check the box than to ignore it entirely, as the Germans do. At least the British system pressures politicians into staying at that two per cent floor, even if they have to fudge the numbers. The alternative most of Europe has chosen is simply to give up.
But don’t kid yourself: just because Britain will spend two per cent of its income on defence, more or less, doesn’t mean there won’t be defence cuts.
By Nato’s definition, British defence spending has fallen by about six per cent since 2011, while the size of its Armed Forces has shrunk by 15 per cent.
Over the long run, the most expensive part of the Armed Forces in any democratic nation are its soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, not its planes, tanks, and aircraft carriers. That’s why, when defence budgets decline, the size of the force shrinks disproportionately: it’s the easiest way to cut costs.
But there’s something more important to defence than money: the sense that it’s worthwhile making the effort. And this is where my worries really start.
It’s painful for me to admit, but around Washington DC, I regularly meet senior people – sensible, responsible Americans – who have simply given up on Britain.
They didn’t want to give up. They have simply drawn a reasonable conclusion from Britain’s declining defence spending, the Commons vote on Syria in 2013, the Cameron government’s ridiculous emphasis on foreign aid, the lack of interest it has shown in foreign policy more broadly, and the invisibility of foreign, defence, and security policy in May’s general election.
And the conclusion is this: Britain is no longer interested in playing a world role, and is no longer a serious country. This isn’t about the EU referendum: indeed, many Americans regard the EU’s naval-gazing as part of the problem.
It’s a conclusion that’s been amplified by a series of high-profile articles in the Anglo-American press, including Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph. This perception clearly worries British officials, because it’s the first thing they try to rebut in meetings with Americans.
In a way, Moore’s argument exemplifies the problem. He contends that Britain needs a sense of geopolitics, even though it no longer has an Empire, because it cannot escape the world’s security challenges, and still has economic interests around the world on which London depends. All true.
But Britain’s world role didn’t flow from the Empire, or even solely from trade. What undergirded that role was Britain’s sense that its interests were wrapped up in a political vision, one embodying optimism, progress, and improvement. It wasn’t merely imperially expansive; it was morally expansive.
And that’s the basis for American concerns: not, ultimately, that Britain’s spending too little on defence, but that it doesn’t know what it is defending. Above all, Americans want Britain to be confident in its history, its civilisation, its mission. That kind of confidence can’t be supplied by a Budget speech, but it would be worth a lot more than Osborne’s pledge.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American Relations, based at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation in Washington.