The independent resource on global security

Apr. 11: Falling European military spending—a threat to our security?

SIPRI’s recently released data on military spending for 2010 shows world military expenditure continuing to grow, albeit at a slower rate than in recent years, reaching US$1630 billion. One region, however—namely Europe—actually saw a fall in military spending in 2010, of 2.8 per cent in real terms. While this reflects the after-effects of the global economic crisis, as governments begin to tackle budget deficits, the region has in general bucked the trend of rising global military spending over the past decade. In particular, Western and Central Europe—almost all of whose countries are members of the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or both—have seen an increase of just 4.1 per cent since 2001, compared to a global increase of 50 per cent. Moreover, major western European spenders have announced plans for further, albeit fairly modest, cuts in military spending over the coming years, as deficit reduction efforts continue. As military spending in the rest of the world continues to rise, what are the implications of this flat or falling trend in Europe for Europe’s security and place in the world?

The question has recently been a subject of concern among leaders on both sides of the Atlantic—Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, for example—how European countries are falling yet further behind their ally the United States in capabilities and technology, and even emerging powers such as China and India. Such complaints have been heard from the defence lobby for some years, raising fears of a soft, weak, toothless Europe, increasingly irrelevant to world affairs. But how valid are the underlying assumptions behind these concerns: that European military spending is too low, and that current and forthcoming cuts will jeopardize European security?

Certainly the military spending gap between the USA and Europe has widened considerably; but this has been less because of cutting in Europe than because the USA has been increasing its military spending so rapidly—by over 80 per cent since 2001—driven both by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and by redoubled efforts to extend its already overwhelming advantage in military forces and technology. US military spending represents 43 per cent of the world total. At around 4.8 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010, the US military burden is higher than that of all but a handful of countries.

So yes, Europe has not followed the USA in her breakneck pursuit of military power above all else, a strategy that, over the past decade, has won her few friends and done little to make her secure, not to mention its effect on the budget deficit. Why, though, is it so often assumed that this reveals a problem with Europe rather than a problem with the USA? European countries are often accused of ‘freeriding’, of enjoying the security benefits of NATO membership but letting the USA foot most of the bill, but it is not freeriding to refuse to follow one’s ally in an expensive and counter-productive course.

But what, one may ask, of all the threats often said to be facing Europe? Terrorism. The rapid rise of China. Turmoil in the Middle East. It would be glib to try to explain away all possible threats, or suggest that Europe can dispense with military defence, but let’s get this in proportion: Europe is enjoying, in historical terms, an unprecedentedly benign military security situation and the leading West European nations will retain, in spite of coming cuts, some of the world’s strongest and most advanced militaries, and remain some of the world’s leading military spenders.

Moreover, most of the threats Europe actually faces are not susceptible to military solutions. The past decade has taught us that terrorism is not defeated by military power. The biggest threat to the security and well-being of Europe and the world is climate change, something that requires a completely different sort of investment.

As for China’s rapid military modernization: this may well generate concern among its neighbours, as well as the USA. But—aside from the fact that Europe enjoys generally positive relations with China at present—simple geography dictates that China does not remotely pose a conventional military threat to Europe, discomforting as it may be for traditional military powers such as France and the United Kingdom to see themselves overtaken by the emerging Asian giant.

Where I do agree with many other European commentators, at both EU and NATO level, is that whatever European countries do spend on the military, they need to spend it better and smarter, with much greater cooperation and pooling of capabilities and much less duplication and spending on legacy cold war capabilities. Likewise, we in Europe need to think carefully about what our collective priorities are, and direct spending accordingly.
But in setting these priorities and resulting spending levels, we should not be dreaming up phantom threats or militarizing threats that really call for non-military solutions. And we should certainly not allow America’s obsession with military power to determine our policies and priorities.
SIPRI released its new data on military expenditure on 11 April. The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database now contains data for 171 countries over the period 1988 to 2010. It is the only comprehensive, consistent database on military spending with global coverage available and a vital tool for transparency in the military sector. Access or download the database at or read the SIPRI Fact Sheet on military spending in 2010 at

About the author
Dr Sam Perlo-Freeman is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme, responsible for monitoring data on military expenditure worldwide. Previously he was a Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England, working in the field of defense and peace economics.


Dr Sam Perlo-Freeman is an Associate Senior Researcher at SIPRI.