The Alphen Group: V-Conference on Strategic France. 15 February 2021

The starting point was the latest, 2021, Strategic Update, by the French Armed Forces Ministry, extending out to 2030. Its analytical preamble was generally welcomed as lucid, provocative, and properly aware of the scale of overlapping and accelerating geopolitical and geo-economic challenges (“Proven Degradation of the Strategic Environment”). While nuclear deterrence would continue to render Great Power War unlikely, the threatening overall picture would require major change in transatlantic security responsibilities and the scale of defence efforts. In addition to terrorism, growing Great Power rivalries, and mutating hybrid strategies, the document usefully highlighted new competitive domains like hybrid submarine warfare, involving seabed sabotage of cables. These interlocking predictions deserved serious consideration within NATO, and in bilateral dialogues. 

But the balance and labelling of recommendations signalled potential problems. The document envisaged a leading French role in both managing a complex cooperative transatlantic strengthening of hard military capabilities-and in simultaneously “disentangling” economic and monetary, competences and technical standards and infrastructures, to increase European sovereignty and “Strategic Autonomy”. This acrobatic double role could well be contradictory. Its designated end goal was imprecise and would stimulate suspicions of inflammatory neo-Gaullism in Washington. Less toxic and more accurate terms might be “Strategic Identity” or “Strategic Responsibility”. Certainly, European NATO states needed to do more, and more coherently, but, ideally, as a stronger, more integrated pillar, with identifiable military utility, within the Alliance, rather than as an opposing pole to the US. Experience with the Anglo-French Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) provided one promising model. For scenarios on or beyond Europe’s periphery, true autonomy was anyway impossible given dependence upon US enabling capabilities. More determination and resources across the whole span of Alliance capabilities might avoid acrimony between Washington and European capitals over disparities and labels. But it was far from clear that European allies would even develop the indispensable collective determination to generate sufficient forces for a convincing first response to crises on their own continent, and so allow the US only to provide strategic reassurance, and to divert resources elsewhere. 

With Germany distracted by prospective leadership transitions, elections, and coalitions, facing a still military-phobic electorate, and after disappointing decisions over Nordstream 2 and EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on China (CAI), Macron might indeed replace Merkel as Biden’s most important European partner. But frictions could already be predicted for this relationship. While the US would not tolerate abandoning Georgia or expecting Ukraine to give up any possibility of regaining Crimea, for France these might be worthwhile compromises to revive and maintain an ultimately indispensable European relationship with Russia. In general, electorates across the Alliance took NATO benefits for granted and noticed only bilateral disputes among allies. Geo-economics, economic statecraft, and coercion (e.g. secondary sanctions) were becoming both more globally important and more disputatious. Biden might be trusted to guarantee Europe’s security, but this was no longer viewed as an automatically bankable American response. Facing future crises, France would insist upon being able to foresee, decide and act, in conjunction with the US, if possible, and with European allies if they were willing. If not, then it might act only with the US and UK, though France found the UK a complex military partner.

At the very least, more unified threat perceptions would be a vital precondition for any new Transatlantic Bargain and the additional resources it would dictate. As one glaring example, there was still no consensus on whether China should be principally viewed as an opportunity or a threat. These cognitive and conceptual gaps need urgently to be narrowed if the Alliance is to respond to the scale and complexity of challenges outlined in the French document and comparable national assessments.

Paul Schulte, February 2021