26 February 2020

French nuclear deterrence between national sovereignty and European defence

Niculae Iancu

French president Emmanuel Macron seems to be in full electoral campaign for the European common defence leader position. France is the only EU nuclear power member and the only permanent member of the UN Security Council inside union’s bloc. It that enough for Macron to bring major European capacities and initiatives from the defence field to his vision of the future of common security? Some of Paris’s arguments in supporting such idea: the promotion of a “European army”, the call on building a “common European strategic culture”, the establishment of an important number of European initiatives of operational cooperation (EU and no-EU), the support of funding, from union’s budget, the initiatives within the common defence package, the occupation of the European commissioner position for the internal market (includes the new General direction for the defence industry and space) or the chief of Common security and defence policy, whereat we can add the affirmation inside the North Atlantic Alliance of the most vocal French stance in supporting the post-de Gaulle era reform.

Image source: Profi Media

Nuclear deterrence and the structure of France’s defence and security policy

In a public speech recently held in front of the students of War College in Paris, Emmanuel Macron was saying that the global reactivation of nuclear power resorts is one of the biggest challenges of this century. “Interstate challenges” are again possible, was the French president saying, but the world is now in the middle of a new paradigm. “Current nuclear multipolarity cannot be compared to the Cold War model”. “The power balance based on nuclear deterrence became unstable”. “Some states consciously choose a nuclear opaque and even aggressive stance, which includes blackmail and after the fact reaction.” The accusation, in 2019, of the INF Treaty by the signatory parts and the uncertainties on keeping the New START Treaty until after 2021, increases the uncertainties on the future nuclear status quo. Therefore, Macron thinks that lacking of an international regulation and control framework of the nuclear weapons regime, Europe could become the field of a new conventional and even nuclear arms race of non-European powers”, and France will not accept such thing”. The references for US and Russia’s behaviour in negotiating these treaties, but also China’s subsequent abstraction from any discussions on this topic are more than obvious.

During time, the nuclear deterrence capacity was the main method, for France, to keep its strategic independency on the US. Its necessity became all the more obvious for Paris as the Obama and Trump administrations have lately advanced, at least at a declaratory level, the reductionist policies in the common transatlantic defence plan. And it is not actually about the possibility to reduce the American capacities dislocated in Europe, where France was anyway never fully comfortable with. It is firstly about the deficit of strategic communication between capitals in the last two-three years, especially on US’s unilateral military and political actions in the Middle East, where the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran or the diminution of the military presence in Syria was constantly on the first page of the European and euroatlantic security agendas after the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia.

The breaches also deepen due to the different perception on the two sides of the Atlantic regarding the major threats to the European space or the emergence of divergent interests of economic and technological nature. At the Munich Security Conference, President Macron said that "we need some freedom of action in Europe". Moreover, "we must develop our own strategy. We do not benefit from the same geographical conditions as Americans, we do not share the same ideas about social balance or social welfare. We have ideals that we must defend. Mediterranean politics is a European issue, not a transatlantic one. So is Russia. We need a European policy, not just a transatlantic one”.

Despite this discursive offensive for "greater freedom of action" and for "European strategic autonomy", Macron agrees that the nuclear security issue must be managed in NATO format. Therefore, one must acknowledge what the nuclear deterrent represents for the current administration at Elysee Palace.

Emmanuel Macron stated in the preamble to the Strategic Analysis of National Defence and Security conducted when he took office as President, in 2017: "We have decided to keep our nuclear deterrence strategy and to renew its two components, considering that they ultimately guarantee our vital interests, the independence and freedom of decision of Paris”. The analysis reveals that nuclear deterrence remains essential for France's defence strategy, because it "protects it from any state aggression against its vital interests, from anywhere and in any form. It prevents any blackmail threat that could paralyze Paris' freedom of decision and action. "Therefore, Macron announced that "nuclear deterrence will continue to be placed in the permanent structure of its two indivisible and complementary components, air and naval" and believes that "it contributes to the security of the North Atlantic Alliance and Europe."

As for the common European security space, Macron states, in the same document, that "European progress in the field of defence must be strengthened". In his vision, France laid the foundation of European strategic autonomy and there would be "a few French partners" to realize that "Europe is the natural framework for jointly protecting the borders of the whole European space, considering the challenges that can only be tackled together", "as part of a balanced transatlantic relationship". Therefore, Macron believes that this would be the right time to "revitalize European defence by approaching strategic cultures" of EU member states, by "cultivating pragmatic partnerships between European states that, like France, have the political will and military capabilities to fulfil the operational responsibilities and commitment of the necessary resources at European level”, together with “strengthening defence industries, so that Europe remains at the forefront of technology and at the top of global competitiveness”.

Starting from these visionary points, it is underlined the French national security and defence policy’s structure. At its centre it lays the "sovereign capacity" of France’s defence and French people "within the national territory and overseas departments and territories". Then is the European dimension of French security, argued politically and geopolitically by France's status in Europe and the impossibility of dissociating the major risks "directly facing France and Europe" within a "weakened international system" and in the presence of "emerging actors trying to do everything to undermine it”. However, the European dimension of France's security is not similar with its participation in EU’s common security and defence, although there should apparently be a high degree of agreement between the two. It is a desynchronized which increases confusion on the purpose and the way wherein, within or outside the EU, are operating certain ideas and initiatives of Paris in the field of European defence. Among them, the "European army" produced a real transatlantic shock and continues to raise questions about a possible competition between Europe and the United States within the North Atlantic Alliance. From this point of view, it can be seen that the third level of the French national security and defence policy is the ally. The strategic documents of the French defence and security consider that NATO is "a key component of the European defence" which depends on the "transatlantic relationship’s calmness ". However, it seems quite obvious that this relationship is suffering, amid the communication gap between Paris and Washington on sensitive security issues and the unilateral actions of the United States in areas of major interest to the French. Here is the fourth level of France's national security: the level of "strategic partnerships outside the Euro-Atlantic area", especially with the states in those regions of strategic interest for Paris. It would be firstly Australia and India, but also Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam.

France’s nuclear power is at the foundation of the entire scaffolding of France’s national security. Paris thinks French nuclear deterrence can play an important role in the establishment of a relevant European common defence and security profile, wherefrom to start to implement Union’s ambitions to have an active and trustable place at the table of big global actors.

French nuclear deterrence and European security

French nuclear deterrence could become relevant for European Union's Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). The exit of Great Britain from the Union transformed France into the only nuclear power in the community space. In fact, France is still the only EU member state with permanent membership at the UN Security Council. This uniqueness of the French defence profile has given President Macron a new lead in addressing, sometimes bluntly, the central issues of European and global security. The famous statement on "NATO's brain death" held the front page of specialist publications throughout the Euro-Atlantic space for several weeks and triggered a succession of contradictory political statements in Washington, Brussels and Berlin. However, such a statement was not unique. Since taking over as president, Macron has persistently pursued the promotion of a new foreign policy and security policy, much more directly and pragmatically. He did so at NATO and EU summits, during G7 and G20 meetings, during bilateral meetings or during public appearances on radio, TV or in conferences.

The constituent elements of the current administration’s messages are sustained on the strength and continuity of French strategic thinking and culture. These come, in Paris's view, from the national consensus on France's role in Europe and the world, as well as from the legitimacy conferred by its European vocation, within the Euro-Atlantic area. Moreover, the more than 40 years of "self-suspension" in the NATO military command structures have proved and pointed out that France has a strong representation of the national sovereignty concept in the field of defence in an allied context. However, Paris does not want to compete with Washington, because France does not pursue the global major power status in military terms. Rather, France assumes the role of European power, a medium power from a geostrategic perspective, with global interests and responsibilities from a political perspective and with an active presence in Africa, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific.  

France supports Brussels' integrative vision of European defnece dimension. Following his  actions, it appears that for the French, the European defence does not only refer to common capabilities and the conduct of joint military operations, but also to an entire European ecosystem of research, development, production and use of complex weapons systems under EU label. The European defence architecture would start from its own ability to innovate in the military field, acquire and maintain a pronounced technological autonomy degree, and go up to a real projection of ground, air and naval forces capable of acting autonomously in various operational scenarios specific to Union’s interest spaces.

However, the French defence initiatives are not fully subsumed by the CSDP. Paris promotes a manybilateral and trilateral initiatives with the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as a whole series of regional forces or industrial cooperation for the joint development of "European capabilities" for defence. These include the Euroepan Air Transport Command (EATC), the Franco-German Brigade, the Franco-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF), the Franco-German Air Transport Unit C130 J or the integration of other European forces into the structure of fighter aircraft group of Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. At the same time, the Franco-German cooperation in the technological plane is found both in the program of future air combat system (SCAF - in French) and of the future European tank (MGCS), both seen as common battle platforms that will be able to enter the future force structures in EU member states, by 2040. Hereof, Paris and Berlin believe that both the interoperability and sustainability issues facing the common military structures today will be overcome, primarily because of the too large diversity of equipment in Member States’ endowment, but also that the current weaknesses created by the European technological deficit towards the main military powers on the international stage, including the USA, will be removed.

Finally, it can be seen that all these "malfunctions" have also been transformed into arguments for the promotion within the European Union of recent initiatives within the joint European defense package, the European Defense Fund (EDF) and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Therefore, France’s presence within the European security and defense space creates a kind of conceptual loop that is not fully embedded in the CFSP. This drawing starts from the identity and value arguments of Union's construction, starts from its institutional framework to navigate between bilateral or multilateral strategic, operational and technological initiatives and returns, probably to close, probably in cyclically functioning mechanisms logic, within the formal framework of the very concrete initiatives in EU’s common defence package and, implicitly, in the Community budget for security and defense.

France, an European security and defence leader?

All political documents and messages, the strategic initiatives and military cooperation mechanisms seem to outline the current vision of Macron’s administration on France’s central role in the European security and defence architecture. Paris has the political will and seems willing to allocate the resources needed to achieve such a vision. As is evident from many current European security analyzes, France wants, firstly, to acquire the "informal leader" position of the European defence conferred by the multitude of initiatives and cooperation formats it established or aims to achieve. implement. Later, this prestige could be harnessed within EU's more formal framework, in order for France to become the locomotive for European security and defense, similar to Germany's economic recognition.  

However, there are many obstacles that Paris should overcome until such a desire is achieved. Many seem to be unwavering nowadays, whether of a political or strategic nature, or of critical thinking or a security model, or of trust or communication.

Despite uncertainties regarding common defence’s future, one can say that France today wants a geostrategic autonomous Europe, connected to a common strategic culture, specific in doctrinal and operational terms, capable of carrying out complex missions and operations in interested strategic regions and to apply common tools for planning and financing the research and development of new capabilities, without contradicting the essential role of the European defence in transatlantic format.

Translated by Andreea Soare