By Emile El-Hokayem – The recent announcement that France would soon open a military base in Abu Dhabi fueled speculation about France’s intentions in the Middle East. But this announcement should not divert attention from the more important and drastic changes coming from Paris on security and foreign policy.
France is indeed in the midst of a major debate over national security that is likely to affect France’s defense posture for decades to come. Indeed, coming on the heels of the professionalization of the French military under the presidency of Jacques Chirac is an even more ambitious enterprise looking holistically at France’s national security needs, capabilities and architecture.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has launched the production of a White Paper on Defense and National Security to establish a new conceptual framework that deals with the new and multifaceted threats of the 21st century. The panel of high-level bureaucrats and defense intellectuals is expected to release the report in coming months, with the ultimate objective of bringing “coherence between our strategy, our capabilities, our objectives, our means and our financing.” For sure, there will be limits to the exercise, as no one envisages questioning the role of nuclear deterrence, the doctrine of self-reliance, and the importance of European defense cooperation as core elements of French security policy. But the report will undoubtedly include a reassessment of French security interests and the cost of pursuing ambitious military basing policies and deployments. It is also expected to address the challenges of terrorism and WMD proliferation and the corresponding need to protect the homeland and improve domestic intelligence.
Another aspect of institutional reform is the likely creation of a full-fledged National Security Council reporting directly to the President through an empowered National Security Advisor with clear interagency and operational responsibilities. The French president has traditionally been the ultimate decisionmaker on security and international matters, relying on a tight group of advisers to define policy. But as challenges grow more complex, there is a need to expand the decisionmaking circle and promote integration and cooperation among agencies. This seems to be the direction pursued by Sarkozy when he appointed Jean-David Levite as his senior diplomatic adviser. Levite, who previously served in Washington and at the United Nations, saw first hand the workings of the US NSC and appears eager to build a similar structure of coordination and decision.
A parallel rethinking effort is done by the ministry of foreign affairs to assess France’s diplomatic engagement and calibrate missions and capabilities. Its diplomacy, through its vast network and experienced civil servants, is only second to America, and its veto right at the UN Security Council an ardently protected instrument of French power. But France’s diplomatic power is undeniably in retreat, the result of the rise of other middle powers and the growing diplomatic role of the European Union. The transfer of power from Paris to Brussels requires giving greater voice to other countries on issues where France was the dominant player. Nevertheless, France continues to deploy formidable cultural and economic assets and its support is often sought by world leaders.
France is also moving quickly on other fronts. France has made the important decision to reintegrate the Atlantic Alliance as a full-fledged partner after its bitter departure in 1966 over disagreements over NATO decisionmaking and the influence of the United States. While France reentered NATO’s Defense Planning and Nuclear Policy committees in the 1990s, the move now considered – joining the integrated military organization – has even more significance. Already French troops operate under NATO command in the Balkans and Afghanistan, where France plans on increasing its contribution in coming months.
France must balance its improving relationship with NATO with the still nascent effort at building a common European defense architecture. Indeed, if France’s new defense direction is affected in no small part by Sarkozy and his Atlanticist leanings, serious obstacles still prevent European defense from progressing. France remained defiant of US intentions and policies for decades, but the new tone of the relationship is unmistakably cooperative. Sarkozy is banking that his pro-American views will soften US concerns over potential competition and duplication with NATO should the European Security and Defence Policy move forward.
Sarkozy’s ambitious vision will no doubt encounter major resistance from the entrenched French bureaucracy, including the military, from which much is asked without additional resources. Sarkozy himself could become an obstacle to change. He preempted the recommendations of the panel by announcing the opening of the base in Abu Dhabi, although its small size and logistical function suggest no dramatic shift in French defense posture. His contemptuous view of the intricacies of diplomacy, his over-reliance on his chief of staff for sensitive missions, and his tendency to conduct affairs of state without involving his bureaucracy have created bad blood within government agencies. But France can no longer go without an efficient national security architecture destined at addressing contemporary and ever more complex threats.
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Emile El-Hokayem is a Research Fellow with the Southwest Asia/Gulf program at the Stimson Center.