Defense Transformation a la Francaise and U.S. Interests

By Michel, Leo G. | Strategic Forum, September 15, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Defense Transformation a la Francaise and U.S. Interests


Michel, Leo G., Strategic Forum


"La grande nation" Still?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged that France "will remain a great military power" when he unveiled the White Book on Defense and National Security and endorsed its wide-ranging reforms. (2) The next day, a group of anonymous general officers condemned it as an "amateurish" and "incoherent" exercise that "cannot mask the downgrading of our military in a more dangerous world," and former conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppe criticized Sarkozy's intention to enhance France's role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a "fool's bargain." (3) Behind such rhetorical volleys lies the complex, costly, and occasionally humbling process of defense transformation a la francaise: the Sarkozy government's attempt to refashion the strategy, structures, capabilities, and international engagements of the only European Ally, except for the United Kingdom, that aspires to be a global actor able to act independently, if needed, to promote or defend its interests.

Sarkozy launched the effort with ambitious terms of reference for the White Book: a prospective analysis, covering a 15-year horizon, of the international security environment and priority missions of French armed forces; a comprehensive strategy that emphasizes synergies between defense and nondefense structures and capabilities (such as economic and diplomatic tools) and between external operations and homeland defense; and recommendations on future force structure, equipment, financing, human resources, intelligence organization, and industrial and research policy. (4)

Moreover, the White Book was to be the product of a relatively transparent, inclusive, and bottom-up process--unlike the White Books of 1972 and 1994, which were essentially defense ministry products carefully guided by the president's staff. To prepare the document, Sarkozy appointed a commission of some three dozen civil servants, military officers, parliamentarians and local elected officials (of the majority and opposition parties), and eminent representatives of civil society. He encouraged the commission to hold open hearings with French and international specialists and to solicit public input through an Internet forum.

In some respects, the White Book fell short of expectations. Sarkozy effectively preempted the commission process on a few contentious issues--notably nuclear weapons policy, France's future role in NATO, and whether to construct a second aircraft carrier. Some critics, including the aforementioned group of anonymous general officers, charged that the military's viewpoints were not sufficiently represented in the commission's work, although General Jean-Louis Georgelin, Chief of the Defense Staff and a commission member, asserted otherwise.

Still, the White Book placed on the table key questions facing the government and public that for too long had escaped critical analysis by all but a relatively small circle of officials and experts. The commission's open hearings, Internet forum, and spinoff meetings held by defense-oriented think tanks created an important record for journalists and researchers and served as a welcome supplement to closed-door meetings with parliamentarians and military leaders.

France's defense transformation is a work in progress. But based on the White Book, statements by government and military officials, and reactions from leading politicians and nongovernment analysts, a reasonably clear picture has emerged on three questions:

* How do the French assess the future strategic environment?

* How do they intend to adapt their strategy, capabilities, and international partnerships to deal with that environment?

* What are the implications for the United States?

Threat Perceptions

The threats of international terrorism, weapons proliferation, and deepening ties between state and nonstate actors--arrayed, according to the White Book, in an "arc of crisis from the Atlantic to [the] Indian Ocean"--are at the top of French strategic concerns.

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