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European Defense : The French Perspective

European Defense : The French Perspective

Address by François Bujon de l'Estang, Ambassador of France, at the College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, April 20, 2000. Source: French Embassy in Washington D.C.

Europeans have often been chided in the United States for their contribution to the alphabet soup, which is generally seen as a distinctly American specialty : I am often asked when Europeans will finally make up their mind : is it ESDI (European security and defense identity), ESDP (European security and defense policy), or CESDP (Common European security and defense policy) ? Allow me to be straightforward, and make things simpler, by addressing the issue of European defense, specifically from a French perspective. Few European issues have gotten so much attention in such a short time frame since the Kosovo campaign, especially in the U.S., almost as if it had sprouted overnight.

I believe however that the issue cannot be fully grasped, nor many of the specifically American debates understood without stepping back for a moment to get some historical perspective. I would then like to examine where we are today in this major endeavor, and where we are going, especially with the French rotating presidency of the EU Council coming up next semester (from July 1st to December 31st).

[I. A look back]

A. Over the last 40+ years, at the same time that it has enlarged (moving from six founding States in 1957 to 15 today), the European Union has deepened - proving, if need be, that one movement need not exclude the other if some caution is exercised. One of the areas of integration that was not initially spelled out in the Treaty of Rome, Europe’s founding charter, is foreign policy. The European Union has, for the last thirty years, painstakingly built up a common foreign policy, which has progressively emerged as one of the areas where Member States have chosen to work together, in order to increase their weight on the international scene.

Although it emerged later than other components of this policy, European defense is an integral part of this picture. Indeed, after trade integration (the common market), monetary integration (the single currency, which represented a major loss of sovereignty - or rather a pooling together of sovereignty), we have moved to foreign policy integration (CFSP). Europe is turning today toward a common defense policy. Hence this is not an isolated development, but one that needs to be placed in its proper context – not just something out of the blue, neither from the point of view of history nor of logic.

Indeed, just like for any Nation-State, defense is for Europe both a foundation and an extension of an effective foreign policy. A foundation of foreign policy because there are circumstances where, in order to be credible – and thus effective – diplomacy needs to be backed by the threat of force: circumstances where declarations of principles, even when endorsed by the heads of state or government, need something else in the background in order to be heard by those they are addressed to. An extension of foreign policy because we need to have military capabilities at our disposal in order to implement our foreign policy, just in the same way that we dispose of purely economic or diplomatic instruments.

B. It is also important to look back at the U.S. perspective over all these years, to understand the debates we are engaged in today.

The U.S. has long advocated and supported a stronger Europe. Looking back to the end of World War II, let's not forget that the strategic vision behind the Marshall Plan was precisely that of helping Europe get itself back up on its feet, but in such a manner that Europeans decided, among themselves and in a cooperative manner, at the origin of European Union where and how U.S. assistance was to be used. Allow me to quote as well President Kennedy, in a famous 4th of July address: "It is only a fully cohesive Europe that can protect us against fragmentation of the Alliance. Only such a Europe will permit full reciprocity of treatment across the ocean, in facing the Atlantic agenda. With only such a Europe can we have a full give and take between equals, an equal sharing of responsibilities and an equal level of sacrifice".

Although both of these visions corresponded to a long-term analysis of the U.S.' strategic interests, they were also, to be quite candid, directly related to the Cold War context. The challenge is to be able to implement them now that the Cold War is over, precisely at a time when the changing role of NATO should allow for greater European involvement.

C. The end of the Cold War not only made European defense possible in many ways, it actually created the conditions that made it appear as necessary to many Europeans.

After the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo both contributed, in their own way, to the realization by Europeans of the unacceptable nature of some of their military shortcomings. Bosnia, especially for countries such as the United Kingdom and France, who paid the price of blood in Bosnia, and whose forces on the ground suffered substantial losses, was largely synonymous with the paralysis of Europe when the United States decides not to get involved in a crisis militarily. Kosovo, on the other hand, was indeed a wake-up call in the other direction, at least as far as air power is concerned.

In the course of the 90’s France was involved in more than thirty crisis situations requiring the involvement of military forces, most of them side by side with US forces. The United States and the European nations have borne the brunt of the burden in handling these crises. They have done so to a large extent with the military resources that they had acquired for cold war purposes. We have thus relied on the political and military capital we had accumulated in the past. The time has now come to take a fresh look at how we intend to handle future crises and which tools we shall need to do so.

The EU's great potential today is that it can rely on economic, humanitarian and diplomatic tools. The recent experiences have also made it clear that there would be no credible European crisis management capability unless it were backed by a significant military force, allowing Europe to contribute to any operation or lead it. This feeling is very much shared by our public opinions.

D. Let's move now to the extraordinary developments in the last one and a half years, since the Anglo-French St. Malo Summit in the fall of 1999.

It took a new crisis in Kosovo, and Prime Minister Blair's new and fresh approach of European Defense, to give us a new deal.

In the twelve months between the St. Malo summit and the Helsinki European Council, held December 10-11 1999, we have covered more ground than over the past twenty years. The major turning point for European defense was the reversal of the British position in the autumn of 1998. The UK's traditional reserve toward European defense had constituted, until then, a significant obstacle to the development of any European defense initiative, given the fact that the United Kingdom is, along with France, one of the only European nations with significant military projection capabilities. They are the two countries that spend most for their defense in terms of GDP (2.8 % in 1999), and the most on defense R & D. France, as I am sure you know, was the first European contributor to operation Allied Force in Kosovo, followed by the UK.

The UK's wholehearted endorsement of European defense was all the more valuable given its close ties with the United States. Actually, Prime Minister Blair’s clear commitment to achieving a European defense was a watershed. It is important to well understand why.

Since General de Gaulle's 1965 withdrawal of French forces from the integrated military structure of NATO, the US and the UK had been traditionally highly suspicious of any French initiative in the field of European defense. Whatever we did or proposed in that respect either within or outside of NATO was systematically regarded as an attempt at weakening collective defense, or at splitting the Europeans from NATO. France's many attempts at propping up the WEU (which was, after all, the one and only existing European organization in the area of defense) were always interpreted as devious Gallic plans aiming at creating an anti-NATO juggernaut, keen at torpedoing transatlantic solidarity. This attitude persisted beyond the reasonable, that is to say beyond the moment when the French government, in the wake of the election of President Chirac in May 1995, seriously attempted to turn the page to rejoin the integrated military structure of NATO in exchange for a better distribution of responsibilities between the US and the Europeans and a reallocation of NATO's regional commands.

That is all behind us today, and in many ways irrelevant. I would like to turn, in some detail, to where we are today on the front of European defense.

[II. Where we are today]

A. The latest milestone in the development of a Europe Defense was the Helsinki European Council, held last December. Our fifteen heads of state or government solemnly took a series of very important commitments at Helsinki:

Firstly at Helsinki we have pragmatically set as a global objective to be able, before 2003, to deploy and sustain, over at least one year, a corps-size rapid reaction ground force (up to fifteen brigades, hence between fifty thousand and sixty thousand soldiers). This force must be able to take care of its own needs. Hence it will have to be provided with capabilities of command, control, intelligence, and logistics. It will have the support of naval and air elements. Let me emphasize that this is the first and, in the eyes of France, the fundamental building blocks of an effective Security and Defense Policy. We fully realize that our credibility rests before and above all on our being able to deliver on this commitment.

Secondly, we endorsed the establishment of new permanent political and military bodies to ensure rapid and effective decision-making procedures for the day-to-day management of military operations.

Thirdly, we committed to ensuring that appropriate measures are put in place for the consultation and cooperation with the six non-EU European NATO members, and with NATO as an institution.

B. The big decisions are behind us. Over the next few years, we will be working on their implementation. This does not mean that the hard decisions are behind us though, or that we are out of the woods. I would say that European defense in the present phase of consolidation, is like a bicycle : if it does not move forward, it falls.

I see two main issues that we need to address : the most important one is meeting our capability commitments; furthermore, we must do so in a way that allows for a healthy and balanced Alliance - the U.S. attitude will play a major role in this respect.

- Meeting our Helsinki capability commitments :

As I have said earlier, this is clearly the priority for us. France is in a special position in this regard as it will hold the rotating Presidency of the European Union and the W.E.U. from July to December 2000, at a critical moment for European defense. Regarding the core commitment on capabilities, I am sure that many of you wonder how the EU will be able to achieve in such a short time-frame something that we have struggled with in the NATO framework for many years. We have no magic recipe. Ultimately, the answer lies in European capitals, for that is where, as in the United States, the hard political choices are made on the allocation of economic resources: on the national level. I think it is fair to say, however, that the more European citizens and taxpayers feel involved in what their money is used for, the more they are ready to contribute. The present unsatisfactory state of defense budgets within NATO partially reflects a state of complacency deriving from US protection and bluntly said some Europeans are taking a free ride with US involvement in NATO. I am largely confident therefore that, just as enhanced capabilities should imply, in our view, increased responsibilities among allies, increased responsibilities will in turn politically translate into a greater sense of entitlement and, therefore, greater commitment to enhanced capabilities by EU citizens.

I should emphasize however that this isn't necessarily about spending more, but about spending better, or getting more "bang for the buck" as the Americans would put it. The UK and France, for example, have actually decreased their defense spending over the last ten years while substantially increasing the military capabilities that they can effectively and rapidly project and sustain in a hostile theater which shows that spending well is more important than how much you spend.

Our part of the bargain is clear. Our commitment is strong. What do we need from the U.S. in order to move forward harmoniously? It is very simple : support.

- Working with the U.S. and with the Alliance:

First of all, let me be clear: the strengthening of European Defense will not in any way undermine the role of NATO. Quite to the contrary. A Europe that remains allied to the U.S. simply because of its own weakness is of limited value. To quote Lord Robertson, NATO's secretary general, during his trip to Washington two weeks ago : "this is about values, and value added". A stronger and more assertive Europe is in everyone's interest, on both sides of the Atlantic. Developing the capacity to achieve the objectives set out in Helsinki will involve increasing a strengthening of Member States' forces as well as reinforcing the interoperability of their respective forces. This can only be to the advantage of NATO, since 11 of the 15 member states are NATO members.

Second of all, let me tell you something that I firmly believe and regularly tell my official American interlocutors: we need to avoid petty institutional quarrels or needless procedural debates.

Some in Washington still seem hung up on the idea of a possible institutional competition, and would like it to be engraved in stone that the EU could only act after NATO has turned down an operation – the so-called "right of first refusal". I consider this to be a pointless and purely abstract theological argument. This does not mean that what Europeans want is "EU first". It simply means that in real-life situations, such as Kosovo or even in Albania in the spring of 1997, decisions are taken in close and constant consultations between capitals (capitals of countries that are both EU and NATO members). I simply cannot conceive of a serious crisis situation emerging in Europe or in its immediate periphery that would not immediately trigger a series of in-depth consultations between Washington and its European allies, both within and outside of NATO. Any decision on intervention will naturally be the product of such consultations.

Today, I have the impression that the institutional theologians are to be found in Washington, the Cartesians on the bank of the Potomac and the pragmatists in Paris, London or Berlin. I am confident however that this issue will be sorted out over time.

We will also be looking specifically at arrangements covering the consultation and participation allowing third countries to contribute to EU military crisis management. We cannot afford to be exclusive. In any case, Helsinki provides that if the Union decides to launch an operation using NATO assets (one of the most likely scenarios in the short term for large-scale operations), the non-EU members of NATO will have an automatic right to participate.

Although it is more in the European Union than in NATO that these developments are now taking place, the United States has a special role to play. First of all because most assets that NATO would provide to an EU-led operation are in fact American assets. Second because in political terms, the transatlantic equation is changing, and it is important that this change take place in a spirit of cooperation and not of confrontation. Unfortunately, if you forgive my being blunt, what I have encountered from American friends over the last year on the issue of European defense has been something between skepticism and hostility.

In many cases, the same people harbor both attitudes. This explains why many of us in Europe feel that there is a certain American ambivalence regarding this issue, has been the case with the whole issue of European construction. While the official discourse is always extremely favorable to European construction, each significant step in the development of European unity has unfailingly been greeted here with frilosity or has provoked a negative reaction. In 1992, after the completion of the single market in Europe, America cried "Fortress Europe". With the Euro, an initial phase of hostility gave way to skepticism, only for Americans to realize later that Europeans were serious about this project. As far as foreign policy is concerned, those very same people that complain about the absence of a common foreign policy also complain when Europeans do agree and present a united front to Washington.

So I hope you will forgive me if I am a little blasé about this ambivalence I encounter regarding European defense. Perhaps this ambivalence is strongest in Congress, where the clamor for burdensharing, the cries for increased European military capabilities and the anxiety as soon as Europeans move to improve their capabilities are the loudest. I would be unfair to my many friends in Congress if I did not mention, however, that this ambivalence is also very strong in the administration.

One related area where we share a common objective but need to work together on the best way to achieve it despite what may be a certain American ambivalence and nervosity is that of transatlantic defense cooperation.

You can't raise the issue of Europe’s defense without mentioning defense industry. There can be neither autonomy for Europe nor efficient defense spending for procurement without the existence of progressively European defense industries major consultations in Europe now on aeronautic and defense groups (avoiding the building of "fortress Europe" Vs "fortress America). Building such an industry must take into account the States’ joint military needs, the integration of defense industries and the creation of an institutional framework tailored to the need for an effective form of cooperation that respects the States’ strategic interests.

To conclude, I would like to quote the French defense minister, at a speech he delivered last February in Washington D.C. :

There is no turning back. If the European project launched at Helsinki fails it will be Europe's capability to act to ensure its own security and to act along with the U.S. as an ally that will be at stake. Our European failure would be our common Atlantic failure. Our European success will be a common Atlantic success, because it will allow us to address, together, the challenges that face us in an increasingly unstable world. There is no other economic and political partner in the world with which you share so many interests and values. The same is true for us. Neither side can – nor should – take the other for granted.

Thank you very much.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).