French shifting strategic policy

Posted in NATO , Europe | 17-Jun-08 | Author: Steven Erlanger and Katrin Ben| Source: International Herald Tribune

French soldiers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) stand guard north of Kabul.

PARIS: In its first new national strategic policy in 14 years, France has decided that its security is best guaranteed within Europe and the NATO alliance, marking a significant shift away from French exceptionalism.

The new military and security strategy, which President Nicolas Sarkozy will present in public Tuesday after months of internal debate, calls for a smaller, more mobile army, with savings spent on better intelligence and modern equipment.

Building a credible European defense is a French priority, the strategy says. But French plans were damaged by the Irish rejection of a new set of rules for the 27-nation European Union that would have made it easier for members to cooperate on defense.

In fact, publication of the French white paper was delayed until after the Irish referendum last week on the so-called Lisbon Treaty, to avoid providing the neutral Irish with another reason to vote no.

The new defense doctrine seeks to prepare France and Europe for a post-Soviet world in which conventional military threats are downgraded compared to a multitude of complex, globalized risks, ranging from epidemics to terrorism and cyberwar.

Jobs in defense will be cut, with estimates of 54,000 over the next six to seven years out of a current total of some 330,000. Most of the reductions will come from the standing army and its noncombatant support services, with the intention of reversing the current 60-40 ratio of support to combat personnel.

The cuts are politically sensitive, given local and political interests, but a reduction in personnel is the only way to provide more financial room for maneuver for acquisitions and training intended to create a more modern army, where threats are more likely to come from terrorism, cyberwarfare or missile attack than from a traditional invasion.

The plan foresees raising the budget for military acquisition, for example, by more than 16 percent, without immediately raising defense spending, and spending twice as much on space, with the intention of creating a space-based early warning system against missile attack. A decision to build another aircraft carrier will be postponed and spending on intelligence, which is to be reorganized under a single chief, is expected to double.

France's defense budget is about $57.3 billion a year. The plan foresees an increase of one percent over the rate of inflation beginning in 2012. France currently spends about 2.3 percent of its gross domestic product on defense; that will drop to 2 percent over the next 12 years.

The plan also sets a new requirement of at least 30,000 French soldiers able to be deployed in combat within six months, with 5,000 soldiers on permanent operational alert, part of the larger goal of helping to make a European defense capability both credible and functional. Europe's goal, far from being realized, is to have 60,000 soldiers able to be deployed.

Addressing force reductions, Defense Minister Hervé Morin wrote in the newspaper Le Monde on Monday: "To get going, to adapt, that's the price to pay; it's the price to pay for the defense personnel who have the feeling of having already given a lot compared to other administrations. But it's the price to pay to stay credible."

If France and Europe are capable of acting on their own, a senior French official said, the United States will take them more seriously.

A copy of the plan was provided in a briefing by senior French officials who would not allow their names to be used before Sarkozy's speech.

The officials emphasized that France's operational needs had changed since the last such white paper, in 1994, and that France would concentrate less on bilateral military actions in Africa, for instance, than in joint operations with the European Union, NATO or regional groups like the Organization of African Unity.

Asked if this finally meant the end of French colonialism, one official said: "It's the end of decolonization."

Sarkozy created political waves here when he announced that France would reintegrate into the military wing of NATO, so long as there was "parallel progress" in developing a European defense and security policy that could carry out European Union missions outside the American-led NATO alliance.

It was a rejection not only of an older Gaullism but also of the generally anti-interventionist and anti-Bush policies of the opposition Socialist Party.

In 1966, angry with American and British domination of NATO, President Charles de Gaulle said that the world situation "stripped of justification" French military integration in NATO and he ordered all foreign forces out of France. Today, with the Soviet Union gone and the European Union more fully established, Sarkozy has decided that France is best served by participating fully with Washington and NATO, in part because the vast majority of members of the European Union are also members of NATO.

"Today there's no longer a raison d'ĂȘtre" to remain outside NATO, an official said. "It's not just about integrating France into NATO, but NATO into Europe."

The alliance had changed considerably with new members in the last decade, the official said, and new peace-keeping missions in places like Afghanistan and Kosovo.

"We see the trans-Atlantic relationship as a key to European security and French security," he said, emphasizing that the EU and NATO are now seen as "complementary," not as rivals.

Still, officials made it clear that France would preserve its independent nuclear deterrent outside any alliance structure and that France would not allow its troops to serve permanently under any foreign officer, even in peacetime.

The Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty will create significant difficulties for France, which takes over the revolving presidency of the EU on July 1 and wants to reintegrate into NATO next year. In the Lisbon Treaty itself is a tool known as "permanent structured cooperation," which would lay down binding commitments for EU members willing to contribute to Europe's defense.

"It's delicate to go full speed to implement it now since we don't know if the Lisbon Treaty will ever exist," said Justin Vaisse, a former adviser to the French Foreign Ministry and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The prospect that the Irish may be asked to vote again on the treaty means that France's whole presidency "is somehow under the spell of a possible new vote," he said.