It was a good deal – too good to be true. The supply of 12 conventionally powered submarines to Australia, a contract worth nearly € 55 billion, half of which seemed set to go to France’s Naval Group. Australia cancelled the contract, purely and simply, in favour of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and the United Kingdom. “Betrayal”, “stab in the back”, “attempt to eliminate the French defence industry”, “strategic break”, “slap in the face for France”, “breach of trust”, recall of ambassador, and so on. Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, was the most melodramatic, describing the USA and Australia as “former partners”. 1
The emotion was all the greater because Canberra’s cancellation of the contract and, above all, the birth of AUKUS – the strategic alliance between Australia, the UK and the US – came only a few weeks after another important event, the “impromptu” withdrawal from Afghanistan. That decision had already shaken the strategic calm that Europe thought it had regained with the election of US president Joe Biden.
These two events are closely linked. They are both part of the maturation at the Pentagon and the State Department of the “Asian pivot” policy, which President Obama had first mentioned publicly ten years earlier – in Australia, to be precise. Of course, this political shift is above all an “officialization” of the centrality of the China issue in American foreign and security policy. However, that policy is not a solely American question. It concerns all countries attached to freedom in general and to freedom of movement in this region of the world. Moreover, the pivot encompasses multiple subjects, including the problem of secularization in Muslim lands – in particular, those difficulties in establishing rule of law and democracy which arise from the very structure of Islam, all the more so in countries bordering anti-democratic powers or governed by systems based on Islam and nationalism. Afghanistan, which borders China, Pakistan and Iran, is a textbook case in this respect.
It follows that the USA’s containment strategy towards China will, from now on, be based above all on a maritime strategy. From this point of view, the association with Australia and the UK is completely coherent. It is also consistent because of the community of values, interests and language that these countries share with the United States. It was therefore logical that Australia and the UK, both of which are already linked to the US through the Five Eyes Agreement 2 – the UK is also linked through NATO and the Indian Ocean cooperation agreements 3 – were called upon to become privileged allies in the implementation of the Asian pivot. There is little doubt that others will follow. Beijing’s imposition of prohibitive tariffs on Australian products, following Canberra’s requests for clarification over the emergence of Covid-19 and its refusal to grant Huawei a license for 5G, has heightened Australia’s growing awareness of the Chinese threat. Last but not least, Australia is the only country in the region with real strategic depth.
As was pointed out by Luc de Barochez – one of the few French commentators who did not give in to emotion – Australia’s decision is not at heart a commercial issue. It is above all a question of strategy. “[S]een from the island-continent, the United States offers, against China, a more reassuring guarantee of security than that of France. The nuclear-powered submarine proposed by Washington is more stealthy, its Tomahawk cruise missiles are more dissuasive than the French hardware” 4.
But in France, the policy of “surjouer”, or acting up – whose inventor and most brilliant incarnation remains General de Gaulle – has percolated through a large part of the establishment and public opinion. Its effect has been to put France in a kind of navel-gazing virtual reality, where even arithmetic and strategic considerations seem out of place 5.
But whatever many observers – especially French ones – think, the member countries of the European Union will benefit from AUKUS in the long run. In the first place because it is not only an important military agreement for the three countries concerned. Above all, it is the sign that a real strategy is emerging to deal with China’s formidable rise in military power and the acceleration of the country’s metamorphosis from dictatorship to 5G national-totalitarianism. And, not the least of the paradoxes in this case, France will also be one of the main beneficiaries in terms of security. AUKUS offers Polynesia, whose defense it is hard to imagine being organised from Paris, a non-negligible additional guarantee in terms of security. 6
After the question of substance we come to that of style, and to the manner in which the contract between Naval Group and the Australian government was breached and AUKUS launched. Just as they were not notified of the breach of the submarine contract, the French authorities were not invited to join AUKUS nor were they informed in advance of its launch.
The explanation that this communication breakdown was due to an American administration still in the process of being formed – due to the Senate’s blocking of appointments – is hardly a convincing one. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that Secretary of State Antony Blinken was kept out of the negotiations or that he could not have informed the USA’s six or seven main allies, if that had been the administration’s intention. And although it is hard to dispute that France was not warned, the reactions of certain figures in Asia suggest that AUKUS did not surprise them.
At a time when many voices are being raised in Europe to put the question of a European defence policy back on the agenda, it seems to us that it is essential to try to understand the reasons behind the behaviour of the American administration with regard to France. In this way we might avoid confusion, misunderstandings and sterile proposals in the debate on European defence.
Put a little bluntly, perhaps the main message that the American administration wanted to send to France – and, through France, to all of its European 7 and non-European allies – is that of a qualitative and quantitative change in its policy towards China. This paradigm shift implies for all the USA’s allies a limitation of their diplomatic latitude in their relations with Beijing. In other words, for them the time for solo initiatives is over. Prior consultation is now in order. 8
The second message is a reminder, in a more subliminal mode than that used by former President Trump, that the “brain-dead NATO” theme not only lacks elegance towards those who have assumed most of the responsibility and cost of Europe’s defense for the past 75 years, and who played the role that we know in Normandy, but is also irrelevant, due to the enormous “capability gaps” 9 of European countries. In other words, there is no alternative to NATO in the defense of the continent. Consequently, the commitment made in 2014 in Newport, Wales, by the members of the Alliance to devote at least 2% of their budget to defense policy by 2024 must be kept. In addition, European states will have to show restraint in their relations with Moscow as with China.
While this paradigm shift by the United States does not prevent Europeans from taking initiatives in the area of defense and security policy, it clearly helps to define the contours of that policy, in particular by clearly establishing an order of priority for threats. The People’s Republic of China first, the Russian Federation second.
In addition to these two threats, there are two more specifically European ones: the security of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Maghreb and the Sahel region on the one hand, and the cohesion of the European Union on the other.
Real threats, perceived threats
Of the four threats mentioned, all of which are perceived in different ways but are real, the fourth – the risk of the Union disintegrating – is certainly the one that requires the most attention from EU member states. This presupposes a genuine readiness to understand and take into account different threats considered a priority by different actors. In other words, the Union must respond to the threat from the East and to the threat in the greater Mediterranean, as well as make its contribution to the containment policy towards China. For the Union to take these three threats into account is a sine-qua-non condition for its continued cohesion.
Ending the strategic cacophony
Such an approach might create the conditions for breaking out of the “strategic cacophony” 10 that prevails today within the Union. It implies a break with the logic of “cherry-picking”, a policy that consists of responding to national needs by launching initiatives or forging ad-hoc alliances. Thus Germany, France and Spain join up to build a fifth-generation fighter; Italy and France build frigates; Germany and the Netherlands create a joint army corps; France and Germany create a joint brigade; the UK and France cooperate in the Libyan adventure; France and India address security issues in the Indian Ocean; France and Germany build the tank of the future; Greece and France ensure security in the Aegean Sea, etc. These are agreements in which strategic considerations and military-industrial imperatives are mixed together in varying proportions, often without it being possible to determine which is more important. The last initiative mentioned, that of the Franco-Greek politico-military cooperation, is the one that raises the most concerns: it creates the premises for a situation where the interests of all member states are not taken into account and, consequently, where the Union is not the place where all the interests at stake are reconciled. The scenario is not unlike that of the Franco-British intervention in Libya.
In this perspective, certain postures do not help. These include that of Peter Hultqvist, Swedish defence minister, whose opposition to the creation of a European intervention force 11 was amusingly declared in the name of NATO, to which his country does not belong.
Similarly unhelpful is the positioning by countries bordering the Mediterranean who consider that the Russian threat is not really a threat, or who believe that the Ukrainian or Belarusian questions do not constitute security issues for the Union.
Let’s avoid white elephants
Similarly, the proposal by Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to create a rapid intervention force of 5000 soldiers 12, does not seem to us to be a serious way forward.
First of all, as the Italian general Maurizio Boni points out 13, the size of this force can only be calculated on the basis of its objectives, which it is up to the Union and its member states to define. The crisis situations the Union has faced in the past can nevertheless help us form an idea of the minimum dimensions of this common European army.
Thus, if a European intervention force had needed to carry out a stabilization operation like the one planned in Libya in 2015, four years after the Sarkozy-Cameron adventure, then at least 28 000 soldiers would have had to be deployed to secure the “useful” Tripolitania region (Tripoli, its airport and immediate vicinity). According to the criteria used at NATO 14, this would imply an army of at least 100 000 soldiers. In Afghanistan, the American evacuation force had 6000 soldiers on the ground (and probably as many in the “back office”) for an operation that was extremely limited in time.
Secondly, unless one decides not to learn from past mistakes, the sine-qua-non condition for the operability of such an intervention force is that it be totally decoupled from the national armies and governments of the member states. In other words, it must be the army of all member states together, composed of European soldiers and placed under the authority of the European institutions.
European defence summit
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has announced that a European defence summit will be held in the spring of 2022 during the six months of France’s EU presidency, and during its election campaign. Unfortunately, the title seems to be an invitation to turn this meeting into a binary, sterile and impassable duel between, on the one hand, supporters of NATO and, on the other, defenders of the Union’s strategic independence. As we have seen, the threats facing the Union are of two types. The eastern threat is essentially defensive in nature, while those in the Mediterranean and the Pacific are essentially of a security nature.
Moreover, the “capability gaps” of many EU and NATO members are so great that the very wording of a “European defence summit” seems to us to be ill-considered and inappropriate.
This does not mean that defence initiatives cannot be taken. Rather it means, in our opinion, that this is not what is essential today. In terms of defence, the key issue is, on the one hand, for Europeans to abandon their perennial posture – which betrays a real attitude of submission – of complaining about the alleged lack of consideration shown to them by the United States, and instead to respect their commitments to NATO; and, on the other hand, in Europe’s direct assumption of responsibilities in the area of security policy.
Decoupling defence policy from European security policy
A solemn reiteration of their commitment to NATO by the members of the European Union should therefore, we believe, constitute the starting point of this summit. On this basis, the EU member states that so wish could make European security policy a truly common (and “communautaire”) policy, by means of an enhanced cooperation 15 aimed at the creation of a common European army 16, by agreeing on a ratio for the funding allocated to defence and security policies. For example, such a ratio might be 1.7% for national defence and 0.3% for European security policy. This army would be autonomous, under the authority of the institutions of the Union, and would only come under the integrated command of NATO in the event of activation of Article 5 of the Alliance 17.
By way of illustration, the priorities of European security policy, and the range of missions of the common army, might be defined as follows:
- To be able to carry out stabilization, peacekeeping and peacemaking operations throughout the Mediterranean and Sahel region;
- To be able to carry out rescue operations for European nationals;
- Contribute to the security of the Aegean Sea;
- Contribute to the security of the Black Sea;
- To be able to ensure the security of a gas pipeline linking the Cypriot and Israeli fields to the European continent;
- To participate in safeguarding freedom of movement in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
The EU could also propose to the USA and non-EU NATO members that Ukraine’s application for NATO membership be frozen for a period of ten years in exchange for the immediate opening of negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the EU.
Such a scenario is certainly less ambitious than the one proposed by Mark Rutte and Pedro Sanchez, the prime ministers of the Netherlands and Spain, and Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, for the abolition of the unanimity rule in foreign and security policy. But, insofar as only willing member states would participate, it seems to us more likely to avoid the pitfalls of a veto by one or other state.
This takes us a long way from the “true sovereignty” 18 invoked by the French president. Its purpose is not to create the conditions for the strategic independence of the Union. As we have seen, that is quite simply impossible in the short and medium term. More modestly, it seeks to create the conditions for a certain, but real, strategic autonomy of the Union – and thereby, in President Macron’s words, a “capacity to decide for ourselves” 19 on matters that concern Europeans first and foremost.
The question is whether the French president is ready – and with him the other heads of state and government – to modify the treaties so that the Union is in a position to go down this road. Or, more prosaically, are they prepared to advocate the abolition of the restrictive rules governing foreign, security and defence policy in the current treaty? Or, at the very least, to amend the treaty articles that exclude foreign, security and defence matters from the scope of enhanced cooperation, in order to allow a group of member states to move forward?
That is the question.
- France 2, 18 September, 2021 ↩
- “Five Eyes” agreement on intelligence collaboration between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. ↩
- Joint use of the Diego Garcia base. ↩
- “Du bon usage du Trafalgar australien”, Luc de Barochez, Le Point, 23 September 2021 ↩
- The 2019 defense budgets for France are $ 50 119 million, for the United States $ 734 344 million, for the People’s Republic of China $ 244 333 million. ↩
- Brisbane – Papeete: 5946 km; Shanghai – Papeete: 10 904 km; Toulon – Papeete: 16 342 km. ↩
- In particular, those NATO and EU members that are particularly shy to reach the goal of devoting 2% of their budget to defense in 2024. According to SIPRI data (2019) Germany is at 1.3%, Belgium at 0.9%, Spain at 1.2%, the Netherlands at 1.3%, Slovenia at 1.1%, the Czech Republic at 1.2%, Luxembourg at 0.6%, Italy at 1.3%. ↩
- In such a situation, a resurrection of the CoCom or Chincom, the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls – the former concerned the Soviet Union, the latter the PRC – cannot be excluded. ↩
- “Illusions of Autonomy: Why Europe Cannot Provide for Its Security If the United States Pulls Back”, Hugo Meijer, Stephen G. Brooks, MIT Press Direct, spring 2021. ↩
- Hugo Meijer, Stephen G. Brooks, op. cit. ↩
- “Non NATO-member Sweden rejects EU rapid reaction force”, Euractiv.com, 6 September 2021 ↩
- Translated into operational terms, this is equivalent to a projection capacity of 1500 soldiers. ↩
- “La chimera della forza di reazione rapida europea”, Maurizio Boni, AD AnalisiDifesa, 7 September 2021 ↩
- One third of the personnel at rest, one third in training, one third on operations. ↩
- Proposal for enhanced cooperation with a view to the creation of a common European army in the service of the European security policy. ↩
- Three rapid-intervention divisions, three air and sea groups, 100 000 soldiers. ↩
- “The parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all, and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the party or parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually, and in concert with the other parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”. ↩
- Interview of Emmanuel Macron, French president, with the American think tank “Atlantic Council” on 4 February 2021, on the relations between the European Union and the United States, and multilateralism. ↩
- Interview with Emmanuel Macron, op. cit. ↩