Britain and France are launching a joint effort to examine possibilities for defense cooperation in the face of shrinking defense budgets. In an e-mail interview, Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and former chief executive of the European Defence Agency in Brussels, explains the context for current France-Britain military cooperation.
WPR: What are some of the historic differences between Britain and France's defense postures?
Nick Witney: We've won more times than they have! Think Agincourt, Trafalgar . . . More seriously, since World War II, the main differences have stemmed from France's independent, Gaullist defense policies, contrasted with Britain's emphasis on its "special relationship" with the U.S. and its de facto role as No. 2 in NATO. Thus, while Britain was benefiting, at various times and to varying degrees, from an American helping hand on nuclear propulsion for submarines, its nuclear deterrent and satellite intelligence, France has chosen to develop all these capabilities for itself. That's been a formidable technological achievement, but one that has often left French conventional forces poorly equipped, as the first Gulf War demonstrated.
WPR: How have developments over the past few years -- the financial crisis, France's reintegration of NATO -- changed that?
Witney: Alongside the differences mentioned above, there have also been many similarities between the postures of the two countries -- in size, resources, the consciousness of a glorious past, and a determination to remain important actors on the world stage (e.g., as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council). So they are an excellent "fit" for cooperation, and have done joint armaments projects together since the 1960s -- from Jaguar combat aircraft and Puma helicopters to Storm Shadow cruise missiles. The residue of mutual political suspicions has now been largely swept away by French President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to bring France fully back into NATO, and the defense budget crunch in both countries has given each an urgent further incentive to find new ways to pool efforts and resources.
WPR: What are some concrete points of potential cooperation and/or disagreement moving forward?