LONDON — British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon on Thursday pushed back against U.S. concerns that the United Kingdom is shrinking from the world, asserting that his country has actually stepped up its engagement in global affairs.
The British military, Fallon said, is deployed in 21 operations across the globe, including the bombing campaign against the Islamic State militant group, the training of moderate Syrian rebels, migrant rescues in the Mediterranean and earthquake relief efforts in Nepal. That total, he said, is roughly double the number of operations five years ago.
“I absolutely don’t recognize any suggestion that we are doing less,” he said.
Fallon was speaking in an interview with reporters from U.S.-based newspapers, including The Washington Post, at the Defense Ministry in London. His comments seemed intended to counter suggestions in recent months by U.S. officials that Britain is in danger of losing its global relevance as it slashes its defense budget and takes on a lower-key role in some of the world’s most pressing crises.
Fallon’s American counterpart, Ashton B. Carter, told the BBC this month that although Britain had always punched above its weight in world affairs, he worried that could change.
“It’s a great loss to the world when a country of that much history and standing . . . takes actions which seem to indicate disengagement,” Carter said. “We need an engaged United Kingdom.”
U.S. and British officials rarely question each other’s decisions in public, given the long history of close ties. But Carter’s comments echoed those of several other American officials, including Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief. Retired British commanders have said that their country’s military relevance is fast fading because of budget pressure.
Fallon said Thursday that Carter had not shared his publicly expressed concerns when the two met privately in March, and he dismissed any suggestion that Britain is pulling back. “Our global reach is as extensive as ever,” he said.
Still, Fallon did not give any assurances on one of the main questions troubling U.S. officials: whether Britain will continue to spend at least 2percent of its GDP on defense. That is the target set by NATO, and Britain has traditionally been well above it.
But with the newly reelected Conservative government laying out aggressive plans to eliminate the deficit, security analysts have said that Britain’s defense budget could take another big hit.
Britain is already halfway through a 10-year plan to cut the number of regular-duty troops — nearly 180,000 in 2010 — by 30,000. Although the government has committed not to reduce regular-duty manpower any further, it has not promised to meet NATO’s 2 percent target beyond this year.
Fallon said future military spending depends on comprehensive reviews that are underway and expected to be completed in the fall. He said that American officials are deeply involved in that process and that the goal will be “much closer collaboration between ourselves and the U.S.”
That collaboration, he said, is already on display in the bombing campaign against the Islamic State. Britain has limited itself to striking targets in Iraq, and Fallon said there were no immediate plans to broaden the mandate to Syria. But he said Britain was providing valuable surveillance across the region and had struck about 300 targets in Iraq.
“It’s not an Olympic Games,” Fallon said. “But if you compare Britain to France or Denmark or Belgium or whatever, they are all contributing. But we have done far more.”
Karla Adam contributed to this report.