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“Now, in the financial crisis, everybody’s broke,” Mr. Techau said. “It’s ever more urgent, but it collides with the sovereignty, which is strongest in the defense sector, as we know. Nothing ever happens out of sheer necessity in politics.”

Still, budgets are shrinking almost by the day. Earlier this year, Austria’s defense minister has confirmed plans to sell two-thirds of the army’s tanks. Last month, Italy’s foreign minister announced that he had cut an order for F-35 fighter jets from 131 to 90 and that the number of warships and submarines would also be cut. Poland’s prime minister said a plan to build a new Gawron-class warship had been canceled.

A spokesman said last week the Czech Defense Ministry has 20 percent less funding this year than in 2009 and will dramatically cut its planned purchase of Belgian-made Minimi machine guns.

And just this week, Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Morenes said he expects his slice of the pie to be cut by 12 percent to 14 percent when the country’s new budget is unveiled Friday.

NATO‘s top military commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, said this week there are obvious areas where sharing resources makes sense, including joint use of helicopters and strategic airlift assets; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; air-to-air refueling capability; and special operations.

There is no doubt that such cooperation would involve significant changes in the way decisions are made. Germany, for example, requires parliamentary approval before military assets can be used. But if other countries forgo certain military systems because they are relying instead on Germany, they would want assurance that those systems would be deployed quickly — and with certainty — in the event of an emergency in their home countries.

And NATO planners continue to hope for a strong declaration of political intent from the summit in Chicago.

“The ground has changed,” the NATO official said.

Slobodan Lekic in Brussels; Daniel Woolls in Madrid; George Jahn in Vienna, Austria; Victor Simpson in Rome; and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.