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Surely France isn’t wooing Washington away from that “special relationship.” Right?

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More stories by Leonid Bershidsky
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Don’t mess with the R.A.F.

Photographer: Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Media, via Getty Images

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letter from U.S. Defense SecretaryJames Mattisto his U.K. counterpart Gavin Williamsonsuggests that the U.S. is unhappy with U.K. military spending.Mattis even appeared to hint that France mighttake the U.K.’splace as the preferredmilitary partner unless the Brits get their act together.

But wait a minute: Of NATO members, isn’t the U.K. an A student when it comes to defense spending? According to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, only the U.S. and barely solvent Greece spent a greater share of economic output on defense last year. Moreover, unlike most other NATO members, the U.K. has consistently spent more than 2 percent of its gross domestic product on the military, never failing to fulfill the obligationthat U.S. President Donald Trump has held up as a measure of loyalty to the alliance.

Spending As Promised?

Ten biggest military spenders in NATO in terms of GDP share

Source: NATO

In absolute terms, too, it’s the second-biggest defense spender in NATO afterthe U.S., with $55 billion in last year’s outlay. And it’s not spending most of its budget on personnel, the way Turkey and many of the smaller alliance members do; at 22 percent of the total, its equipment spending share is closer to France’s 24 percent and the U.S.’s 28 percent than to pacifist Germany’s 14 percent.

So if the U.S. has a problem with the U.K.’s commitment, could it be satisfied with any of its allies at all? And could Mattis be serious about France, which has chronically failed to spend 2 percent on the military? Didn’t French President Emmanuel Macron, soon after taking office last year, causethe head of the French armed forces, General Pierre de Villiers, to quit in disgust over proposed budget cuts?

Mattis, however,does have somevalid reasons to be “concerned,” as his letter states, about the U.K.’s continued ability to provide a “critical military foundation” for diplomatic success.

The U.K.’s ability to maintain defense spending of more than 2 percent GDP is in question. Earlier this year, the International Institute for Strategic Studies published its annual Military Balance, claiming the U.K.’s actual military outlaylast year amounted to 1.98 percent of its GDP because the U.K. economy increased faster than the defense spending. In recent years, the U.K. has only stuck to the 2 percent rule by changing what it includes in the calculation — military pensions, the defense ministry’s revenues, the costs of intelligence services. NATO has accepted the accounting changes because they’re generally in line with U.S. practice and because it’s understandably interested in showing compliance among its members. Adjusted for inflation, the U.K. spends less on its military today than in 2010.

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