BERGEN, Germany - Ever since Allied troops liberated the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp down the road, thousands of British soldiers have made this town their home.

From beating back the Nazis to girding for a Soviet assault, they have been a constant and comforting presence here in northern Germany for 65 years. But by 2020, the last British service member will lace up his boots, march out of the barracks, and turn off the lights on that piece of history.

The planned closure of the base is part of a wave of military cutbacks across Europe, the battleground of two bloody world wars and a protracted cold one in the last century.

Key U.S. allies, such as Britain, Germany, Italy, and France, say they must slash billions of dollars from defense spending if they are to rein in runaway budget deficits that have spooked investors and put a question mark over the continent's economic recovery.

But some officials and observers fret that it is not just personnel and materiel being scaled back, but Europe's reach and ambition. They warn that the cuts will further widen the European-American gap in firepower, even as other nations such as China and Iran continue to beef up their military capabilities.

"Do Europeans want to be actors on the international stage, or do they want to be the actors in a play they are not writing?" former French Defense Minister Herve Morin asked recently, saying with Gallic bluntness: "At the pace we're going, Europe is progressively becoming a protectorate, and in 50 years we will become the game in a balancing act between the new powers and will be under a Sino-American dominion."

Not all analysts share Morin's pessimism, or at least its extent. Many Europeans, mindful of their blood-soaked past, have no problem with downsizing their militaries. A few even see a potential upside in a tighter-knit Europe whose nations, although driven by economic necessity, coordinate more closely on defense and integrate more of their forces.

But there's little doubt that the spending cuts will downgrade armies and arsenals, which could cause a strain on the United States - if, for example, its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies proved less able to respond to terrorist attacks or to fight in conflicts such as the one in Afghanistan.

"There is a point where you are no longer cutting fat, you're cutting into muscle and then into bone," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in October. "We have to avoid cutting so deep that we won't, in future, be able to defend the security on which our economic prosperity rests."

At the end of 2008, according to the European Defense Agency, the European Union boasted 1.8 million men and women under arms, about 400,000 more troops than the United States had.

But far fewer European troops are deployed on missions than Americans, an imbalance seen most starkly at present in Afghanistan. And Washington's defense budget is more than twice that of all of Europe, where such expenditures dropped 2 percent in 2008 to about $260 billion at today's exchange rate.

Greater disparities

The cutbacks being implemented or considered will only heighten the disparities.

Britain, Washington's closest ally, is determined to shrink its defense budget by 8 percent in real terms during the next four years as part of a sweeping public austerity plan. The military is to shed 17,000 troops, postpone an upgrade of its submarine-based nuclear deterrent, and decommission a flagship aircraft carrier, 40 percent of the army's tanks, and an aging fleet of fighter jets.

France intends to cut $1.3 billion, or 3 percent, from its defense budget for next year and eliminate 54,000 defense jobs by 2014. Italy recently canceled an order of jet fighters to save more than $2 billion. Spain is slashing its military spending for the third year in a row. And the Dutch defense minister announced last month that one in seven defense jobs in the Netherlands is likely to be scrapped in the next few years.

In Germany, the government has decided to end conscription starting in July, making the army a purely professional force. A panel also recommends that Berlin cut the number of its troops from 250,000 to 180,000.

Different foreign policies

In theory, the grim economic climate should offer the ideal opportunity for nations to pool their resources and pursue a common foreign and military policy, the Holy Grail for many advocates of greater European integration. Although they are bound to each other through alliances such as NATO, each nation largely pursues its own foreign policy.

Some steps have been taken toward closer coordination. France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands recently put 200 transport aircraft under a single command at an air base in the Dutch city of Eindhoven.

And in spite of the inevitable calls, in London, to remember the Battle of Waterloo, Britain and France sealed a deal to share use of aircraft carriers, conduct joint training exercises, tackle cyberwarfare, and cooperate on nuclear technology.

But critics say there has been little sign of a continent-wide vision or strategy emerging from all the cutbacks.

"France and Britain went in the right direction, saying we duplicate things we don't need to," said Carlo Masala, a security expert at Bundeswehr University in Munich. "But this could be even done on a European level, and this is a debate which I'm missing."