This is the full version of an article published in the International edition of Newsweek on Monday the 7th of July 2008.
President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged that France “will remain a great military power” when he endorsed, on June 17, the wide-ranging reforms contained in a “White Book on Defense and National Security,” which he had commissioned. The next day, a group of general officers, writing anonymously in Le Figaro, condemned the exercise as “amateurish” and “incoherent” and warned that it “cannot mask the downgrading of our military in a more dangerous world.” For a country that calls its army la grande muette, the great mute, because its officers so rarely acknowledge even a soupçon of doubt toward their civilian masters, this passes for a mini-revolt.
The rhetorical volleys are part of transformation à la française – the complex, costly, and humbling process of modernizing the defense structures, capabilities and international engagements of the only European Ally (except, perhaps, for the United Kingdom) that aspires to be a global actor able to act independently, if needed, to defend its interests. At stake is more than France’s defense, since its policy directions and overseas commitments help shape – sometimes substantially – those of its European partners. Moreover, in certain regions beyond Europe, notably in parts of Africa, French influence remains consequential even if it has waned of late. Hence, the United States, too, has an important interest in how French transformation unfolds.
The French debate over the White Book has not focused much on its threat assessments, which broadly match current U.S. views. The document emphasizes the growing unpredictability of global crises and the blurring of external and internal security as a result of terrorism, weapons proliferation, and deepening ties between state and non-state actors arrayed in an “arc of crisis from the Atlantic to Indian Ocean.” (Sarkozy has singled out terrorism as the “immediate threat” against France and referred to the Iranian nuclear issue as the “leading threat weighing on the world today.”) The White Book also evokes the possibility of sudden crises in Asia and warns of volatile, non-military threats from cyber-war to pandemics and mass migration exacerbated by climate change. Neither the disaffected military officers nor Sarkozy’s many civilian critics deny the profound changes in the international security environment since the last White Book appeared in 1994.
Strategy is not the front-burner issue, either, thanks partly to evolving French views of the United States. Not long ago, French experts commonly hinted at risks posed by a seemingly unconstrained or overconfident U.S. “hyperpower.” The White Book foresees a (relatively) diminished U.S. capacity to shape global events and a shift in American focus from Europe toward the Middle East and Asia. This reinforces the French argument in favor of greater European investment in military and civilian capabilities across the spectrum of crisis prevention, intervention, stabilization and reconstruction. Indeed, parts of the White Book echo Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent speeches calling for better coordination among all the tools of state power and NATO-EU cooperation in a “comprehensive approach” to operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo. That said, the White Book pointedly notes that French engagement in a major state-on-state war “can still be envisaged.” Thus, it rejects the notion of structuring its forces to perform only low-intensity or peacekeeping missions.
At its core, the French debate revolves around other problems, beginning with the funding crunch. Sarkozy pledges not to reduce the defense budget – now 37 billion Euros, including pensions, or around 2 percent of GDP. But he cannot afford to increase it before 2012. Far-reaching organizational reforms planned by Defense Minister Hervé Morin are intended to free up credits for investment in new capabilities, including expensive programs to upgrade space-based intelligence systems. Yet, even when coupled with the projected consolidation of some 450 military bases, which already has provoked protests from parliamentarians and local officials, the promised savings from such reforms will fall short. (The U.S. Defense Department’s experience with the “Base Closure and Realignment” process suggests that adjustment costs can exceed savings for several years.)
The White Book’s plan to cut personnel is drawing heavy fire, especially from the Army. True, latter’s share of the military’s “operational contract” – the force theoretically available for rapid deployment and high-intensity combat–has been reduced from 50,000 to 30,000 soldiers, with another 5,000 available for a secondary theater and 10,000 for a domestic emergency. Still, Sarkozy intends to reduce the Army from 157,000 (including 26,000 civilians) to 131,000 over the next 6-7 years; if recent practice is a guide, the troops – not the civil servants – will bear the lion’s share of the cuts. Navy and Air Force ranks also will be thinned (by 11 percent and 24 percent, respectively.)
The president’s assurance that such cuts will not degrade operational commitments in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Africa and Lebanon has not convinced his generals. Indeed, some privately complained of overstretch and inadequate equipment even before he promised, in April, to dispatch 700 soldiers to reinforce NATO in eastern Afghanistan, which is looking increasingly dangerous. In May, a respected retired general, Jean-Claude Thomann, observed ruefully in Le Monde. “While our American and British friends, learning the lessons of operations for which they are paying in blood, step up their defense effort to benefit their land forces, we are preparing to take the opposite course.” In their Le Figaro critique, the anonymous officers fumed: “We are abandoning Europe’s military leadership to the British who, everyone knows, have a special relationship with the U.S. From now on, France will play in the same league as Italy.”
Here the debate over resources joins that over France’s role in NATO. To his credit, Sarkozy not only repeated his intent to “reintegrate” into NATO military structures, where the French military contingent on various staffs represents less than 10 percent of the comparable German and UK presence. He also acknowledged the need to educate his public on France’s substantial role in other parts of the Alliance, where it ranks among the top troop contributors to NATO operations and ranks fifth in terms of funding contributions to NATO budgets. « It was a great mistake not to remind the French of these realities, » lamented the president. « This alliance between Europeans and the United States is also – this is not said enough – an alliance among the European nations. » France’s top military leaders support increased participation in NATO structures, although some others are worried that scarce Euros will be diverted from national budgets to Alliance programs.
At the same time, to counter influential voices in the political class (on both the Right and Left) who are ideologically opposed to any rapprochement with NATO, Sarkozy emphasized his intention to strengthen European defense during France’s EU Presidency, which began on July 1, as a “precondition” of boosting its presence in NATO. Indeed, the White Book outlines a robust agenda for the EU, including rejuvenated efforts to build a 60,000-strong intervention force, buy new air transports and refuelers, and reinforce « autonomous » planning capabilities. Washington, for its part, no longer snipes at EU defense efforts, even if it differs on some details. “We agree with France; Europe needs, the U.S. needs, NATO needs – a stronger, more capable European defense capability,” declared the American ambassador to NATO in February, and President Bush reportedly echoed this sentiment at the NATO summit in April.
Sarkozy’s dilemma, however, is that it might be harder to rally EU members to do more when his own defense establishment is perceived as « hitting the wall. » Senior French military officers, in fact, have hinted at the problem. General Henri Bentegeat, former Chief of the Defense Staff (CEMA) and now Chairman of the EU Military Committee, acknowledged in December, 2007, that, in terms of European forces available for overseas interventions, “we are close to the limit, not in theoretical capacity, but in acceptability by the public and financial responsibility.” And General Jean-Louis Georgelin, the current CEMA, stated in May: “We have a pressing obligation to build European defense, but make no mistake, it will involve more costs than savings for a long time to come.”
What if European defense demonstrably stalls? Sarkozy’s anti-NATO critics will remind him of his “precondition,” while others will pile on by asking: « Why send more officers to NATO when we’re closing bases at home? » Sarkozy promised at NATO’s summit last April that he would “conclude” the process of transforming France’s relations with the Alliance at its 60th anniversary summit next spring. If the past few weeks are any indication, he will need to work even harder to keep that rendez-vous.