Shadow Government

The new Dover shore alliance

Although Britain and France have closely aligned interests, they have long found it difficult to cooperate. As Shakespeare once described the relationship: "France and England, whose very shores look pale with envy of each other’s happiness." While NATO allies France vetoed Britain’s application for the European Economic Community — not just once but twice. But ...

LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

Although Britain and France have closely aligned interests, they have long found it difficult to cooperate. As Shakespeare once described the relationship: "France and England, whose very shores look pale with envy of each other’s happiness." While NATO allies France vetoed Britain’s application for the European Economic Community — not just once but twice. But yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed a treaty that will bind their defense establishments tightly together for the coming fifty years.

The treaty commits the countries to cooperation in nuclear stockpile stewardship, development of a 10,000 troop expeditionary force, and sharing of aircraft carriers. The agreement will see Britain’s second carrier capable of landing French (as well as American) fighters, and swapping crews. They will jointly purchase transport aircraft and develop UAVs and future attack submarines.

Cameron was at pains to emphasize the agreement’s strengths in terms of Britain’s ability to fight unilaterally, saying it will "increase not just our joint capacity, but crucially we increase our own individual sovereign capacity." Sarkozy reassured that France would not balk at participating in Britain’s wars — a crucial argument after the Falklands and Iraq wars.

France and Britain have fought mostly on the same side in their wars of the past century, they’ve been committed to the others defense through NATO since 1949, as well as have Europe’s only nuclear arsenals and its most powerful conventional militaries. They also have political cultures in which the use of military force is still generally accepted as a central element of statecraft.

It has long made sense for Britain and France to cooperate more closely on defense issues.  The Blair government took a major step forward with the St Malo agreements in the late 1990s; but France remaining outside the NATO integrated military command since 1967 created both practical difficulties and suspicion in the United States about European cooperation.

France has been warming to NATO for nearly a decade, acknowledging advances other militaries were making as the result of close cooperation with U.S. military transformation.  France returned to NATO military staffs last year, removing major obstacles to the kind of relationship Britain has been seeking. 

Both countries showed unexpected compromise. Britain has accepted in defense the "two speed Europe" it fought so stridently against in EU councils. France was ambitious for an EU defense in ways that have not materialized; the agreement with Britain can be seen as both countries conceding the EU is incapable of providing the basis for closer practical cooperation. The United States should understand it also as a vote of no confidence that NATO can provide that basis (although the Cameron government would surely deny that, given how much rhetoric about NATO the defense review contains).

The Cameron government managed this all very shrewdly, rolling out their national security strategy, then their defense review, then their budget, and only then signing the U.K.-France treaty. Different sequencing would have increased the outcry in Britain that the budget cuts were damaging to Britain’s security. Setting the context as they did, the optics are good European politics (a novelty for a Tory government), good transatlantic politics, and innovative ways to keep costs down. 

When Great Britain and France were melding their militaries together to fight The Great War (as World War I was called before there was World War II), the Allied Supreme Commander, French Marshal Foch, worriedly asked his British counterpart, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, how many casualties it would take before Britain were fully committed to winning the war. Haig imperiously answered "it would take but the death of a single British soldier," to which Foch irritatedly replied, "then assign him to my staff and I’ll shoot him myself the first day of the war." With the new Cameron-Sarkozy agreements, the French may finally have their casualty.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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