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French Defense Minister Hervé Morin on France, NATO and 'New' Security Threats

Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007

Recent weeks have seen intense interest displayed in the English-language media to signs of a potential reorientation of French foreign policy under new President Nicolas Sarkozy. Following the publication earlier this month of former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine's report to the President on France and "Globalization" -- which, as the extensive extracts published on World Politics Review show, was largely misinterpreted by the media as a plea for change -- some seemingly improvised remarks by current French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner gave renewed impetus to such discussions. During an hour-long interview on the French talk show "Grand Jury" on Sept. 16, Kouchner appeared momentarily to suggest that France was preparing for a possible war with Iran in the event that Iran did not suspend its program of uranium enrichment. Between the publication of the Védrine Report and Kouchner's remarks, however, an arguably more weighty programmatic statement by new French Defense Minister Hervé Morin went largely unnoticed outside of France.

In his Sept. 11 speech to France's summer "Defense University," attended by many of the key decision-makers involved in formulating French defense policy, Morin criticized French behavior in NATO in remarkably vivid language, observing that "we are too often those [in NATO] who quibble and vacillate." Morin then went on to envision precisely that modification of French policy that Védrine in his report had denounced as the greatest "temptation" threatening French independence: namely, France's reintegration into NATO's military command structures, which it departed in 1966. Outlining the security threats to which French defense policy should be prepared to respond, moreover, Morin -- five days before Kouchner's now famous remarks -- clearly pointed to the potential of war with Iran as an eventuality for which French defense, "without resigning ourselves to the worst," must be prepared.

World Politics Review here presents translated extracts from Hervé Morin's speech to the French "Defense University." The italicized titles are provided by WPR. Bolding in the text itself reflects the bolding in the French version of the text published on the Web site of the French Ministry of Defense.

John Rosenthal

On "New" Security Threats and the Example of Iran

What are the new challenges? . . .

- . . . There are also threats to our supplies of energy and raw materials. These have never been so vulnerable, with demand continually rising and supply being too often concentrated in countries where the risk of instability is very high. . . .

- Proliferation continues to represent a major threat. Whether nuclear, chemical, or biological proliferation, it generally involves ambitious long-range missile programs, potential bearers of weapons of mass destruction that are capable in the medium term of threatening the South and the East of Europe. . . .

- There is, of course, the advent of large-scale terrorism, capable of spreading doubt and concern among the Western nations for a long time. Like our allies, we are really exposed [to this threat]. And the threat exists as much within the national territory, for all of our fellow citizens, as outside our borders, for French expatriates and for our soldiers. Strikes against al-Qaida have reduced its capabilities, but the attacks of the last months, from the Maghreb to Asia, should encourage us to remain extremely vigilant. The struggle against terrorism requires improved civilian-military coordination in France and the presence of our armed forces in the crisis regions that have been or could be a source of terrorism, like Afghanistan.

- Finally, we should not forget the possibility of the re-emergence of a major military threat. Whereas the 1994 "White Book" [on defense matters] underscored the reduced probability of a major, high-intensity conflict, today we can no longer rule out such a possibility. The proof is that the whole world is re-arming -- except Europe: global military expenditures have increased 37% in the last ten years. In 2006, they reached $1200 billion: the same amount as at the height of the Cold War. . . .

Today we can see that the strategic appetites and the military capabilities -- whether conventional or non-conventional -- of certain world powers are developing. The probability of an open crisis is not equivalent to zero. If Iran, for example, despite our resolute efforts, continues on the path to confrontation with the international community, how can one not fear a destabilization of the region? Who can believe for a single second that the perspective of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would not provoke a reaction -- notably from certain of its neighbors -- and an unpredictable chain reaction in turn? The North/South divide is increasingly becoming a conflict between the West and Islam. It seems to me that the skies are darkening from year to year in that part of the world. One can even observe an incredible development: a Persian and Shia country is aspiring to become the champion of the Arab and Muslim world. Nobody can guarantee anymore that we are safe from a strategic surprise: it remains, of course, to be assessed within what time period. It could be that the function of Minister of Defense makes one pessimistic, but I feel deeply that considerable sources of destabilization exist. It is our duty, without resigning ourselves to the worst, to prepare ourselves for such possibilities.

On 'the Place of France in the World' and Hamid Karzai's Suggestion

Our country has a particular message to defend, a more humane vision of international relations, which is respectful of the identities of each and everyone. Here is what President Karzai told me three days ago during my visit to Afghanistan: France is one of the few countries in the world that is the bearer of an ideal, a philosophy, the heritage of the French Revolution, and unique know-how (the gendarmerie, for example). A French contribution is essential to legitimate the struggle against extremism: your country should be the voice of conscience, it should struggle against radicalism. It is only France that can be the bearer of this voice of conscience in the world.

Next Page: On France's 'strategic imperatives' . . .

On France's 'Strategic Imperatives'

To contribute actively to the development of stability and security outside our borders, with two priorities: the fight against terrorism and the guaranteeing of our energy supplies. . . .

On France's Relation to NATO

I am convinced that a common European Defense policy [L'Europe de la défense] cannot progress unless we change our political behavior in NATO. Since I have been Defense Minister, I have been able to observe that whereas in NATO we are the best students in the class -- in terms both of our budgetary contribution, which represents 11 percent of total expenditures, and our regular and significant contributions to NATO forces -- we are too often those who quibble and vacillate [chipotent et barguignent], as if we wanted to give the impression that we want to prevent the transformation of NATO.

Progress in European defense -- which we ardently desire -- will not come about by way of an outdated competition with NATO. The President of the Republic clearly underscored this on Aug. 27 [in his Address to the French Ambassadors], recalling our role in the creation of the alliance and the current level of our contributions, both in terms of forces and of the budget. We are presently reflecting on the best means of articulating European defense policy and NATO: a reflection that involves in turn a reflection upon the degree of our involvement [notre engagement] within NATO, weighing up the pros and cons. Allow me to present you some reflections of mine on the question that are highly personal. We know what the pros are:

- Why do we not in fact draw all the consequences from the current situation? France is de facto part of NATO. France is even one of the best students in the class. But we do not profit from this situation as much as we should: notably, in terms of influence and of command positions.

- In the current situation, it is more difficult usefully to orient the transformation of NATO and thus to respond to the new strategic situation.

- We have less influence on the military operations conducted by NATO in the theaters of operation where we are jointly engaged.

There are thus elements that lead us to think that we need to advance further along the path that was begun in 1996. [Note: In 1996, France rejoined the NATO Military Committee.] But allow me also to present to you the contrary position, which in my opinion cannot simply be dismissed with a wave of the hand.

- The cost in terms of both officers and personnel, but also in terms of the budget, must be precisely assessed.

- The risk. Our country has a natural tendency to do what comes most easily [de la facilité] and it could be feared that with the passage of time we will depend on NATO for our defense. The risk involved is a diminution of our sovereignty.

- The chief drawback is the weakening of our international position, which could appear aligned. If we continue to be perceived as what we in fact are -- namely, a country that has an independent foreign and defense policy, capable of bearing a different message within the international community -- it is not only thanks to the talent of our diplomacy, but also because we are not integrated into NATO. One needs carefully to measure this effect. I believe it is a highly important aspect that has to be taken into account.

In my opinion, we will never make progress in building a European defense policy [l'Europe de la défense] if we do not clarify our position in NATO. This is my profound conviction. Why, after all, should you expect our partners to lose faith in a system that has guaranteed peace for 50 years in favor of a system that does not yet exist?

The full text of Hervé Morin's speech to the French "Defense University" is available on the web site of the French Ministry of Defense here. The above excerpts have been selected and translated by John Rosenthal.

Photo: Hervé Morin (French Ministry of Defense)