international analysis and commentary

Britain and France: the 1930s revisited?


It is as though nothing has changed in the world. On April 14th, Prime Minister David Cameron delivered his Conservative Party election manifesto and defense and the armed forces were not even mentioned. France is little better placed. In 2014, the entire French chiefs of staff threatened to resign if President François Hollande’s planned defense cuts were not reversed. The retreat of Europe’s two foremost military powers into “we only recognize as much threat as we can afford” defense could mark the final and irrevocable disconnection of European security from world insecurity.

The facts: In 2014 the UK retained the world’s fifth-largest defense budget at £36.9bn (€51.3bn). However, the 2010 British Strategic Defence and Security Review saw an 8% cut in the defense budget and a 30% cut in operational capability.[1] Whilst London has made much of Britain slightly exceeding the 2% baseline NATO defense spending guideline, London think-tank RUSI suggests that current planning will see defense expenditure fall to 1.56% GDP by 2017.[2] This is in line with French defense expenditure which now sits around the 1.5% GDP level and which has witnessed similar austerity-driven reductions in defense expenditure and military capability since the 2013 French security and defense livre blanc

Deep reductions in defense expenditure in both Britain and France are driven by similar factors. In particular, there is a tendency in both London and Paris for leaders to continually and repeatedly confuse strategy with politics. Moreover, both countries have suffered major debt crises which have dominated public and political discourse since 2008. Both  have adopted or been forced to adopt tight fiscal regimes in order to address their respective debt crises. Both countries have deflected domestic political tensions caused by growing and ageing populations by raiding their respective defense budgets to fund other departments of state, such as health, education and welfare. And, for ideological reasons both have increased their investment in foreign aid at roughly the level of defense cuts. All these trends show no signs of abating.

The justification for the retreat from defense realism is manifold and telling. First, the publics of Britain and France suffer from war weariness after 13 years of campaigning in Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, both governments have strong soft power lobbies at their core which see expensive, expeditionary militaries as simply dragging them into what they see as American military adventurism. The result is strategic and defense pretense. Consequently, both Cameron and Hollande have retreated into military symbolism rather than military substance leading to the progressive hollowing-out of their respective armed forces.  It is both literally and figuratively a recipe for future disaster.

In Cameron’s case defense pretense comes in the form of two new 65,000 ton super-carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, costing over £6n (€8.3bn). In Hollande’s case the Mali campaign has been used to give the appearance of a French force far more capable than it actually is and with far more capacity. In reality the forces of both countries have sacrificed mass for small maneuver forces that have a little bit of everything but not much of anything. 

When compared to the defense spending hikes of the likes of China and Russia, and indeed other powers, the appeasement of reality implicit in contemporary British and French defense choices becomes frighteningly apparent. Worse, the retreat by Britain and France into strategic and defense pretense is accelerating the military eclipse of the liberal powers by the illiberal powers and contributing markedly to America’s growing military over-stretch.

Logically, if the strategic environment is getting bigger and more dangerous and one’s ability to use force to help influence that environment is shrinking, then one must seek partners. In November 2010 Britain and France signed the Franco-British Defence and Security Treaty.  Central to the treaty was the agreement to establish a new Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF). However, like the St. Malo accord of 1998 Britain and France disagreed over the ends. Indeed, whilst the British saw CJEF simply as a way to make pressured ways and means balance, the French tried (again) to use the force to more deeply enmesh the British in the EU’s CSDP. 

To be fair to the French the British must sooner or later confront their CSDP paradox. Central to British defense strategy is a close mil-mil relationship with the Americans.  Unfortunately, the “special relationship” pre-supposes British armed forces of sufficient strength and quality to be of real utility to the Americans and therefore of sufficient strength to influence American choices. The Americans are already angry with the free-riding implicit in the scale and nature of post-2010 British cuts. The further cuts that are now planned could well mark the end of the special relationship which began back in the dark days of World War Two. What option then?

The implications for European defense are manifold. Strong British and French forces are vital to keeping the Americans engaged in NATO. On the face of it Britain’s retreat into strategic pretense might suggest that Jean-Claude Juncker’s call for an EU Army might be a step closer. In fact, Europe is facing the worst of all strategic worlds. For an EU Army to be realized a true Common Foreign and Security Policy would be required and that in turn would demand some form of “European Government”. The British would never accept the transfers of defense sovereignty needed to realize such a political entity, and in spite of occasional French rhetoric to the contrary, neither would Paris.

Furthermore, with EU defense expenditure now at an average 1.36% GDP and with Britain and France still representing almost 50% of all EU defense investment (and with Germany over 80% of all defense-related research and development) Europe needs the Americans more, not less, for its defense.[3] Indeed, the supreme and rather sad irony for European defense is that for all Britain’s defense challenges the £160bn “guaranteed” British defense equipment budget is bigger than the rest of the EU put together, if one excludes France.

Therefore, given where the two countries are strategically and politically, the deterioration of geopolitics, American overstretch, and the prospect of a very bumpy 21st century ahead, the strategic and defense pretense of British and French leaders poses a real threat to European security and defense. First, if Britain and France do not lead, no one else will, certainly not Germany. Second, Washington will not wait indefinitely for Britain and France to get their respective acts together. Third, for all the promised investment real question marks hang over such “commitments” and uncertainty kills military credibility.

However, the biggest question of all concerns political will. The empty strategic rhetoric of both Cameron and Hollande has demonstrated profound and astonishing strategic illiteracy over the past five years with the influence-generating “strategic brands” of both countries badly damaged as a result. Unfortunately, even the most cursory of the respective political classes in London and Paris  suggest that there is little strategic talent waiting in the wings. There is certainly no Churchill or De Gaulle ready to step into the breach.

The twenty-teens could thus be more dangerous than the 1930s.

[1] Derek E. Mix “The United Kingdom: Background and Relations with the United States”, Congressional Research Service Washington. 27 March, 2015.

[2] See Chalmers, Malcom (2014) “The Financial Context for the 2015 SDSR: The End of UK Exceptionalism?” Royal United Services Institute, London. September 2014.

[3] Author’s own research.