go to top

France-U.K. Defense Treaty: Shotgun Wedding or Strategic Union?

Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010

It would be easy to dismiss the French-U.K. defense pact signed yesterday as a shotgun wedding between two second-tier military powers. But it still represents a sea change in military relations between the world's only two expeditionary militaries outside of the U.S., NATO and perhaps Russia. The areas of cooperation are also significant, because they go to the heart of both countries' historical military identity -- nuclear deterrence and the ability to project force -- as well as in the areas that will dominate future security postures, such as satellite and UAV drone development, and cyber security.

What's also striking is the degree to which the agreement represents at best a detour and at worst a repudiation of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's commitment to strengthening EU defense. That was the guiding logic of France's return to the NATO command structure, which was supposed to generate enough goodwill and trust in Washington and London to lift the barriers to further EU defense integration. Instead, the immediate effect of the NATO reintegraiton, in combination with European austerity budgets, is to create a French-U.K. defense core at the pivot point of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Theoretically, if France is able to overcome Britain's Europhobia, that could evolve into what James Rogers calls a "neo-Norman" Euro-core. But given how deep-seated Britain's Europhobia is, it's more likely that Britain is creating the space for France to enter into its own "special relationship" with the U.S., creating a trans-Atlantic triumvirate in security affairs.

With regard to NATO, that creates the possibility for the U.S. to bypass the alliance's members that are less-committed to defense, and instead concentrate its efforts on the European powers that are: France and Britain, and to a lesser degree Poland and Italy. In other words, a coalition of the willing within the alliance, or as an alternative to it.

However, that kind of reduced field of security cooperation would increase the relative weight of the European pillar of the equation, since it would narrow Washington's interlocutors down to those European partners who are least dependent on the U.S. for their own security needs. So we might see the French-U.K. arrangement emerge as a source of tension within the alliance, with Washington trying to use its influence with the weaker NATO member states as a counterweight to the French-U.K. pole.

Finally, it's worth mentioning all of the potential pitfalls inherent in the French-U.K. agreement. The nuclear component remains limited to cost-reductions in simulation testing, with any joint deterrent unlikely for the foreseeable future. Any decision to deploy the envisioned joint expeditionary force is likely to represent as much of a political challenge as would a comparable decision within the EU or NATO, which is to say, a considerable one. Other hypothetical scenarios also come to mind, especially regarding a joint carrier capability. Would the French really be willing to send the Charles de Gaulle to defend the Falklands, with all the implications that would have for its defense-cooperation ambitions in South America (and, in particular, with Brazil)? I'm skeptical, to say the least.

In other words, the bilateral defense relationship that is emerging between France and Britain is likely to face many of the same challenges that the broader multilateral security ties already binding the two countries present -- with the gravitational force most potent at its geographic core, and losing strength as its moves further abroad toward the periphery.