Policy Paper

A French Nuclear Exception?

in Program

All five declared nuclear weapon states are committed under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue the goal of ultimately eliminating all nuclear weapons, a commitment lhat was reiterated at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. France, the United Kingdom, and China have al l i_ndicated, however, that their participation in a process of multilateral reductions would be conditioned upon the achievement of substantial cuts in the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia, a goal that at this writing remains uncertain. Ifthe Russian State Duma ratifies START 11, the Uni ted States and Russia are committed under the 1997 Helsinki Agreement to begi n negotiations on a follow-on agreement. Although the agreed guidelines for START III call for reductions in the two countries’ arsenals to a level of 2.000 to 2,500 deployed strategic nuclear warheads each, some independent analysts have suggested that the next bilateral accord could pare nuclear arsenals even further. A “STA RT 1v” agreement would then be expected to take into account the capabilities of the three “second-tier” nuclear weapon states.

What are the prospects for involvilJg the three smaller nuclear weapon stales in a process of nuclear risk reduction? How are the future  roles and risks associated with nuclear weapons viewed in France, Britain, and China? Under what circumstances would the three states be prepared  to support progressive steps toward  reducing  and, perhaps,  eventually  eliminating all nuclear weapons?

Although there has been little public debate about nuclear weapons in France, Camille Grand’s study, A French Nuclear Exception?, makes clear that French perspectives on future steps in arms control and disarmament have undergone significant changes. At the sanJe time, there is also much continuity in French thinking about the future roles of nuclear weapons in French security and foreign policy.

Undeniably, France’s nuclear program has enjoyed solid and broad public and political support for over twenty years. That support, Grand argues, has rested on more than “gaullist dogma,” and reflects unique aspects of French strategic culture. The French decision to acquire and retain nuclear weapons reflects a rational solution to multiple security threats to France’s territorial security, its integrity as a nation, its independence, and its influence in Europe and in the worJd. France’s geography renders it vulnerable to invasion and defeat with conventional forces, while its history in this centLtry has impressed upon French decisionmakers the unreliability and risks of alliance with other states, and the potentially devastati ng consequences of another defeat and occupation on the morale and very sustenance of the French nation.

The French doctrine of”dissuasion ” reflects this perspective, as it is intended to meet a wide range of threats to the national territory, to Western Europe, and to regions outside of Europe in which France might have important interests, primaril y sub-Saharan Africa and the Midd le East. France has  relied  on a limited  nuclear capability  to threaten  an adversary ‘s “vital  centers” with massive retaliatory strikes, which would inflict damage upon the adversary “equal or superior to the stake that France represents for it.” In contrast to US nuclear doctrine, Grand underscores, in French thinking , nuclear deterrence has never been associated with war-fighting but only with war prevention and peace.

In France, as in the other nuclear weapon states, the end of the Cold War has not lead to major changes in French nuclear doctrine or policy. Despite some calls in the early 1990s for a major stratef:r,iC reappraisal , the 1994 Uvre blanc sw· la defense (Defense White Paper) reaffirmed the role of nuclear weapons in French security policy, even as budgetary constraints and arms control efforts have led to a downsizing of deployed French nuclear forces.

Despite strong continuity in French nuclear policy, Grand observes, there also have been significant changes in France’s approach to arms control. Following decades of demonstrated reluctance to joi n in global arms control and disarmament efforts, in the early 1990s France joined the NPT, w1dertook a 15 percent unilateral reduction of its nuclear arsenal, signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and announced new security assurances. With an eye to future arms control efforts, France supports a treaty banning production of fissile material for military purposes, although it bas reservations about the intrusiveness of an associated verification regime, a reluctance consistent with the reservations, particularly in French military circles, regardi ng greater nuclear transparency.

French participation in a multilateral arms reduction process nevertheless is unlikely in the near term. Although President Jacques Chirac in 1996 declared his intention to make France a “champion of disarmament,” French leaders are likely to await the implementation of the START IJ and lII treaties before agreeing to negotiated reductions in French forces, which would give France from 10 to 15 years before it is forced to confront the question directly. In the meantime, growing international interest in the elimination of nuclear weapons has prompted some French analysts to acknowledge the possibility of disarmament as a long-term goal, even while there is strong consensus that the goal remains infeasible under current and projected political conditions. Grand observes that the complete elimination of nuclear weapons is viewed as a “remote objective, bigWy dependent on the security environment.” A consensus does appear to be emerging, however, on the feasi bility of many intermediate steps toward smaller arsenals, greater transparency, and confidence-building.

In the near-to-mid term, drastic changes in the French approach to disarmament are unlikely, although events in the international security environment or a major US or bilateral initiative to achieve very deep cuts in nuclear forces might lead to a shift in the French position on nuclear arms reductions. Absent such change, Grand concludes, the best strategy is to pursue a “cautious and realistic path.” Grand advises decoupling immediate, achievable objectives from the longer-term debate on nuclear elimination-a debate that could well prove counterproductive in France. In the author’s view, the emphasis “should be put on making the world safer by enhancing non­ proliferation, safety, and confidence-building measures and dismantling excess stocks of weapons.”

The study is the second ina series that examines the problems associated with the eventual transition to a multilateral nuclear arms controJ regime. Other studies in this series explore British perspectives on the future of nuclear weapons and Chinese views on the no-first-use of nuclear weapons and other key arms control issues. The series was undertaken under the auspices of the Henry L. Stimson Center’s project on “Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction ,” which is intended to encourage a national and international debate on the long-term nuclear future. The project is based on the premise that the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union.and the grave dangers of proliferation provide both reason and opportunity to reexamine fundamental asswnptions regarding the relative benefits and risks associated with weapons of mass destruction.

The Stimson Center is grateful to the Ford Foundation and the Public Welfare Foundation, whose funding makes this work possible. We areparticularly grateful to Christine Wing and Mahnaz lspahani of the Ford Foundation for their continued support. We would also like to thank Susan Welsh and Stephanie Ghetti for their comments and editorial support.

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