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France's Strategic Posture: Series Introduction

Monday, June 9, 2008

PARIS -- Next week, a commission appointed by President Nicolas Sarkozy will unveil France's eagerly awaited White Book on Defense and National Security. The product of months of reviews and fierce debate among France's national security community, the Livre Blanc (as it is known) will largely determine France's strategic posture and military procurement priorities for the coming 15 years. The direct impact of the commission's findings will be felt principally within the French military. But in articulating France's strategic orientation and tactical capabilities, their indirect effect will ripple outward, most immediately within Europe and the NATO alliance, but also beyond.

The commission's work must also be understood in the context of a year which saw President Sarkozy announce his willingness to rejoin the NATO integrated command structure and his desire to renegotiate France's bilateral military treaties on the African continent; the opening of a permanent French military base in the United Arab Emirates; as well as a re-articulation of France's nuclear deterrent policy. Taken as a whole, the developments reinforce the image of a nation engaged in a thorough re-examination of its national security posture. So as much as the commission's final conclusions, which have not yet been officially released even if the broad lines have filtered out, the debates that went into reaching them are in themselves revealing.

Over the course of the past month, World Politics Review met with leading figures representing a wide range of France's national security and foreign policy community. Our interlocuters, all of whom were extremely generous with their time and insight, included Eric Chevallier, special advisor to Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner; Michel Miraillet, the director of the Defense Ministry's Strategic Affairs Directorate; Sen. Didier Boulaud (PS), member of the Senate Commission on Foreign Affairs, Defense & Armed Forces, who resigned in protest from the Livre Blanc Commission; Maj. General Vincent Desportes, commander of the Force Employment Doctrine Center for the French Army; Yves Boyer, deputy director of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS); Bruno Tertrais, who spoke with us in his capacity as research fellow at the FRS but who is also a member of the Livre Blanc Commission; and Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégique. We also had the privilege of interviewing former foreign minister Hubert Védrine, the full text of which will conclude the series of articles to follow.

"France is a country in contact with the Atlantic community, the Mediterranean community and the European community. That particularity defines a certain number of character traits of our posture. Secondly, you have the principle of autonomy. Notwithstanding the Alliance, notwithstanding the European Union, there are certain aspects of defense where the French want to act and build with complete autonomy." Yves Boyer

What emerges from these discussions is a vision of the world and France's place in it that, despite many differences of perspective and emphasis, as well as some fundamental and profound disagreements, still manages to form a coherent whole. It's a vision that in many ways overlaps with that of its European and American allies but that remains nonetheless distinctly French, rooted in its geography, informed by its culture, and imprinted with its strategic history. It helps explain France's historically independent posture at the heart of the Western alliance, as well as its ability, under the Fifth Republic, to formulate a relatively broad and durable strategic consensus based upon a secure Western alliance, construction of a European power, and French liberty of position. Disagreement certainly exists about the proper doses of each, but the broad lines have remained stable.

"What's striking is the degree to which there's a great fluidity and complexity that go into international decisions. The fantasy that exists in public opinion, and in decisionmaking circles as well, that it's enough for a few states to get together and decide? That's over. Over, over, over." Eric Chevallier

In many ways, this should be France's moment. The vision of the world that it has defended since the fall of the Soviet Union has gained ground, helped in part by America's self-inflicted loss of influence, but also by the rise of the emerging powers. In the aftermath of the Iraq War, America has become a necessary but no longer sufficient element in driving global resolve. The hyperpower has become the hyperextended power; consensus, the art of persuasion and diplomacy, has taken the place of unilateralism.

"Is it a friendly globalized world that forms an international community? Is it a world that's threatened by the Clash of Civilizations? Is it a world where America will still be a dominant pole, or will there be several poles? If there are several poles, will they be friendly, cooperative or conflictual? These questions persist, and no one can really settle them completely. Hence the uncertainty that we can observe in many strategic documents, as much in France as elsewhere." Hubert Védrine

But today's global realignment is taking place under very different conditions than when the idea of a multipolar world was first presented. America's relative decline and Europe's decade-long institutional paralysis have seriously hobbled the West's ability to manage and direct the transition. The failure to reform the multilateral governance system has been exacerbated by its crisis of legitimacy represented by the Iraq War.

Taken together, it means that the resurgence of Russia (whether real or imagined) and the first glimpse of China's potential, the destabilization of the Middle East and the fierce struggle for Asian supremacy are occurring in a chaotic and unpredictable context. The institutional arenas for consensus are multiple and the tactical coalitions necessary to build it demand a complex alchemy that combines fixed points of influence with fluid interests.

"Will there remain fixed points of influence on almost all the subjects of concern? I think so. But multipolarity suggests that they're sufficient, and I don't think they are. I think they're necessary, but not sufficient. Even with the idea of certain fixed points of interest, there are going to be configurations that will remain fluid." Eric Chevallier

But if everyone is in agreement about the highly unpredictable nature of the global strategic landscape, the question of just how to respond to it has provoked a number of overlapping faultlines. The principle among them, the European-Atlanticist split, is a historic feature of the national debate over France's strategic posture. Another, between advocates of a forward defense versus those who emphasize continental and homeland security, is more recent. Yet another, between France's historic regional focus on Africa and the Middle East and a newfound interest in the Persian Gulf and South Asia/Indian Ocean region, seems to represent the seeds of a new strategic idea. Barely perceptible beneath them all, a subtle yet existential shift seems to be taking place. Whether that shift represents the fulfillment of the Fifth Republic's strategic objectives or a rupture with them is subject to debate, and probably yet to be determined.

Next Page: A complicated budgetary picture . . .

On a more practical level, the Livre Blanc represents Sarkozy's attempt to officially put to rest the Chirac administration's ambitious "Army 2015" program. That procurement plan, which grew out of the previous Livre Blanc published in 1994 and which represented the French military's much needed "modernization wish list," has already been underfinanced by the equivalent of two fiscal years since its inception in 1996, and would have required a €6 billion (roughly 40 percent) annual increase in the defense budget to achieve its material objectives. That at a time when Paris is under increasing pressure from Brussels to rein in its budgetary deficit. As finance minister in 2004, Sarkozy had already tried to introduce a measure of fiscal realism to the plan. So it comes as no surprise that he has already declared the "Army 2015" unattainable in advance of the Livre Blanc's publication.

"From the first debate, there was an analysis in terms of the threats and what needed to be done that was totally out of sync with the financial resources. We came up with a bunch of things that needed to be done, but that we couldn't do." Jean-Pierre Maulny

"Theoretically, there's enough resources. It's all a question of political will. Do we have the will or not? Right now, we're hearing a bit of both." Yves Boyer

Complicating the budgetary picture even further is the intersection of the Livre Blanc with the General Reform of Public Policy (RGPP), a bureaucratic review imposed on each government ministry designed to increase efficiency, essentially through cuts in personnel and modernizing bureaucracies. The implications for the Defense Ministry include the closure of up to 90 military bases, and the reduction (through non-replacement of departing personnel) of 35-50,000 posts. Morale has plummeted and alarm risen among both the military's leadership and enlisted personnel as the Livre Blanc's recommendations have either been announced, or have filtered out through a steady stream of leaks. Sarkozy recently announced, for instance, that the decision of whether or not to commission a second aircraft carrier to ensure a continuous seaborne presence -- the Charles de Gaulle, France's only carrier, is presently in a yearlong-plus drydock -- will be postponed until at least 2012. Defense Minister Hervé Morin recently announced a reduction of France's expeditionary capacity. And the reduction in the production of multipurpose frigates, and possibly fighter jets as well, is something of an open secret.

"The president's policy is absolutely attached to guarding the force projection capacity. That's what gives France its standing among other nations. And at the same time maintaining the replacement of equipment, whatever the cost. For the next six years, we're going to be able to maintain our current spending, in terms of volume. There won't be any growth. That's already insufficient to replace everything. Which means there will be a consequence on the back office." Michel Miraillet

The high ticket items and manpower reductions will theoretically be offset by streamlining the remaining force structure. Mr. Miraillet mentioned the government's commitment to maintaining the remaining modernization schedule by keeping spending at current levels. He also underlined the emphasis that will be found in the Livre Blanc on coordinating defense and homeland security, an emphasis whose origins he traced to Sarkozy's background as interior minister. Similarly, the renegotiation of bilateral military treaties in Africa that date back to the immediate post-colonial period should alleviate some of the pressure on France's deployed manpower capacity. The addition of a fifth strategic component, "Anticipation," to the four previously existing ones (Deterrence, Protection, Projection and Prevention) is intended to reduce the cost of potential interventions by enhancing preventive intelligence capacity. But if France's military expenditures are constrained by its need for fiscal responsibility, its strategic ambitions have, if anything, grown. What has emerged, in other words, is the picture of a military that will be forced to do more with less.

The implications, both real and symbolic, are clear and their effect extends beyond the French military. No one would claim that in matters of defense, as goes France, so goes Europe. Still, an argument can be made that as does not go France, so will not go Europe. Sarkozy has made no secret of his attachment to expanding the EU's autonomous defense capacity, and by all indications, the political climate has never been more favorable for that historic French ambition than now. But at a time when ongoing military interventions -- not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Kosovo, Lebanon, Chad and elsewhere -- have stretched American, NATO and EU resources thin, efforts to increase Europe's global defense profile, whether within the NATO framework or under EU auspices, will suffer without a healthy French defense commitment.

"If France maintains its political discourse, which consists of being one of the countries driving European construction and having a meaningful capacity for action far from its borders, there are limits to what it can do in terms of reducing its capacity. For me, we can still have a defense instrument that's coherent with that political line. But there will be a certain level below which we can't go, unless we change the political discourse." Bruno Tertrais

The consequences of a reduced French and European expeditionary capacity take on their full significance in the context of the major strategic threats -- terrorism, weak and failing states, humanitarian crises, resource competition, and the impact of global warming -- most often mentioned, and the alarming prospects for regional destabilization they represent. Sarkozy, by nature, combines a fondness for saving the day with a willingness to speak hard truths. The challenge for the Livre Blanc, more so perhaps than in other areas he has promised to reform, is in reconciling the two.

In three installments, this series will examine Nicolas Sarkozy's foreign policy and strategic posture along with their implications, in the context of the principle tensions in French strategic thinking outlined above. Part one will examine the proposed reintegration of the NATO command structure and what it means for France, Europe and beyond. Part two will examine France's principle strategic priorities, in terms of potential threats and regions of focus and how they are evolving. Part three will explore the doctrinal debate over how best to respond to today's emerging strategic landscape. And finally, as a bookend to the series, we'll have the full text of our interview with Hubert Védrine.

Next Installment: NATO Reintegration and European Defense ...

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