The 2013 French White Paper on Defence and National Security

Cities of France by David Monniaux, Wikipedia Commons.
Cities of France by David Monniaux, Wikipedia Commons.

National white papers on military strategy are key tools to understand trends in security thought. Last year, the French government issued a White paper on National Defense and security, which has a few interesting points. First, although the document never once uses the term “human security,” this concept has influenced the document: “The term `risk’ refers to any danger that does not include any hostile intent but which might impact on the security of France: they therefore include political events as well as natural, industrial, health and technological risks.” Part of the reason for this shifting emphasis may come from the fact that “France no longer faces any direct, explicit conventional military threat against its territory.” Indeed, Europe’s current security situation, the document suggests, is nearly unique in its history: “… since the end of the Cold War, the European continent has ceased to be the epicenter for global strategic confrontation. This is without precedent in the history of our continent.”

Overall, the report emphasizes the positive. France’s population is relatively young by European standards. The nation is relatively cosmopolitan, and has the “second largest diplomatic network in the world, after the United States.” And the report points too a series of interventions abroad to show that France remains relevant, as it demonstrated in Libya, the Ivory Coast and Mali.

At the same time, the report has some contradictions. First, it emphasizes above all else France’s need to preserve it’s independence and sovereignty. But if there is no conventional military threat to the nation, why is there need to fear for the nation’s sovereignty? Second, although the report emphasizes positive aspects about France’s international position, the entire report is colored by the 2008 financial crisis, which has both limited financial resources, and undermined the attractiveness of the European Union as a project: “Whereas it (the European Union) used to be a seen as a model in many countries, the originality of its system of governance has at times been seen as a barrier to solving its problems.”  Third, Europe is of declining importance on the global stage, as indicated by the United States’ “Pivot to Asia.”

Indeed, the power of Asia is a theme that recurs throughout the work. One figure makes this point powerfully: “In 2012, the total military budgets of the four largest countries in the region- China, India, Japan and South Korea- overtook, for the first time, those of all the countries of the European Union put together.” Of course part of the reason for this change is exactly the fact that European countries -at least until Russia intervened in Ukraine- saw little need for large forces. Interestingly, the report is prescient regarding events in Ukraine, as it argues that Russia’s relationship with EU is “mixed.”

The paper also discusses the risks posed by globalization in depth, from pandemics to resource crises and cyberterrorism. The French have long been concerned about the dangers of unlimited globalization, and this still shapes their strategic thinking. in the end, France continues to make its sovereignty, its commitment to Europe, and its traditional North Atlantic alliances, paramount. But it is also concerned about working to stabilize the Middle East, and other crisis areas globally. To this end, France must deploy development aid to crisis spots, and be prepared to intervene in an emergency. This represents an ambitious goal, and perhaps not one commensurate with France’s declining means (relatively), although France has perhaps been the most active international player in Western Europe over the last several years. And the report states that since the U.S. seems to be refocusing on Asia, European states will have to be more focused on facing their responsibilities. France points to its recent efforts to modernize the military, which have increased its capabilities even during the economic crisis. This latter point is perhaps the most striking one for the report. Yes, European powers are facing a financial crisis, and global power is shifting to Asia. New powers are also appearing elsewhere, such as Brazil. But nations such as France still retain impressive military power, and are determined to be international actors long into the future.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University


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