America's major NATO allies have cut military manpower and defense funds as a share of their economies since the September 11 attacks, in sharp contrast with the United States, which embarked on deficit spending to boost arms outlays to fight global terrorists.
The downward trend is raising alarms inside the Pentagon, which needs the allies' help to battle al Qaeda and other militants in Afghanistan, Iraq and other trouble spots.
A comparison of force structures in 2001 and 2005 showed countries such as Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Poland, Spain and Germany cut their active-duty forces, according to statistics compiled by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. At the same time, the United States increased its ranks from 1.37 million to 1.42 million.
More telling is the share of each countries' gross domestic product (GDP) that is devoted to defense expenditures. The U.S. share has gone from 3 percent to 3.7 percent since September 11, 2001, while other NATO nations collectively have dipped from 2.02 percent to 1.8 percent, according to the Pentagon. Twelve years ago, NATO, excluding the United States, devoted 2.5 percent of GDP to defense.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who once referred to France and Germany as "old Europe" during their vocal opposition to the war that ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, has stepped into the dangerous arena of criticizing Western allies before. But this time, he is doing it diplomatically as he tries to explain the dangers of declining defense budgets in the age of global terror, which has struck NATO countries Turkey, Great Britain and Spain, as well as the United States.
At last week's NATO defense ministers' conference in Munich, Mr. Rumsfeld gently prodded his colleagues to rethink defense spending after he detailed the job ahead.
"This commitment cannot be done on the cheap," he said. "It's always easier for all of us to use our scarce tax dollars to meet some of the desires and appetites we have at home. But unless we invest in defense and security, the reality is that our homelands can be at risk."
The lack of NATO spending can show up in war. The alliance's 1998 air assault on Serbia was carried out by American warplanes in virtually all strike missions. Other countries had not invested money in the smart munitions needed to hit targets in Belgrade and on the battlefield.
Defense officials say European countries are short on capabilities for unmanned spy planes, cargo airlift, countermine technology and precision-guided weapons. All these shortfalls can affect U.S. troops relying on NATO forces to complement operations overseas in places such as the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Retired Army Gen. George Joulwan, NATO's supreme commander in the mid-1990s, said Europe has to be convinced that the war on terror involves a commitment to global operations.
"This is just not the United States in the fight but civilization as they know it," Gen. Joulwan said. "You've go to get them educated to a degree that they understand this is a global war and give them a voice in the process. The initiatives agreed to in Prague in 2002 by all the heads of state need to be fulfilled."
It was in Prague that Europe, prodded by President Bush, agreed to improve defense spending. But the goals remain unmet today, defense officials say.
NATO is taking a historic step later this year when it moves far outside its treaty area and takes command of coalition forces in Afghanistan in the fight against Taliban and al Qaeda.
British Defense Minister John Reid sees NATO at a testing point.
"If we're going to make sure that NATO is a true force in the world, then we Europeans have to step up to the mark and make sure that we are contributing not only towards the discussions in NATO, which are very important, but also the resources, the types of troops that are necessary for today's world," Mr. Reid said.