The French Connection

Why it's time to build a new special relationship between Washington and Paris.    


Despite the headlines, French President François Hollande’s state visit to Washington, which begins on Feb. 10, will focus heavily on international security issues. Europe is "our principal partner" in seeking global security, according to the Pentagon’s strategic guidance. But across the continent, economic strains and disenchantment with military interventions are eroding the political will and defense investments needed to maintain and deploy capable forces. So the United States has a clear interest in supporting an ally that’s bucking those trends.

Before his election in May 2012, Hollande seemed an unlikely candidate for special attention by either the White House or the Pentagon. His Socialist Party cohorts — including current Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius — had lambasted Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande’s predecessor, for reintegrating France into NATO military structures after its 43-year absence. While campaigning, Hollande rashly pledged to withdraw all 3,400 French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. (Under Sarkozy, the French were the third largest European troop contributor, after the British and Germans, and often assumed tough combat missions.)

As president, however, Hollande has steered a pragmatic course broadly convergent with U.S. strategic interests. True, real French defense spending has dipped with inflation, and some conventional capabilities have been trimmed. But new air transports, air refuelers, and U.S.-built Reaper "drones" are entering their forces, and the nuclear deterrent has been largely protected. Hollande should be strongly encouraged to avoid further cuts while commended for his global engagement.

Meanwhile, little has changed in France’s approach to NATO. French officers have kept important posts, including as head of Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Va., one of the alliance’s two strategic commands. Hollande stretched out the pledged drawdown in Afghanistan, where some 200 French military remain in training, medical, and logistical roles. And should NATO deploy its Response Force (NRF) during 2014, whether inside Europe or further afield, a French headquarters will command the NRF’s high-readiness land component.

In Africa, Hollande has not hesitated to use hard power. In January 2013, he ordered air strikes and dispatched 4,500 troops to Mali to deal with al Qaeda-affiliated extremists threatening major parts of the country. Last December, he sent 1,600 troops to staunch the Central African Republic’s descent into a brutal civil war. The numbers may appear small, but these are substantial and risky commitments, involving roughly the same share of the French army as the United States has committed in Afghanistan. In both cases, the United States quickly provided political backing and practical aid, including intelligence support to the French and airlifting African Union peacekeeping forces working with them. Defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently called the United States an "indispensable partner" in Africa.

U.S.-French military cooperation has extended to other regions, as well. French and American aircraft carrier groups, led by the Charles de Gaulle and Harry S. Truman, recently conducted joint training in the Gulf of Oman, where Paris and Washington have similar interests in reassuring the Gulf Cooperation Council states worried about Iran. The two militaries also regularly interact in the Caribbean region, where maritime security and combatting transnational crime are shared concerns. But more could be done to bolster defense-related ties with France. Even better, this can be accomplished while strengthening our traditional "special relationship" with Britain.

At the strategic level, informal trilateral consultations among top U.S., British, and French policymakers and military officials are nothing new. But last summer’s spate of mutual recriminations, involving their respective "red lines" and readiness to launch military strikes against Syria, shows there’s room for improvement regarding crisis response. Emerging threats need greater attention, too. For example, as nuclear weapons states, the three allies should be discussing how to improve the resiliency of space assets and cyber systems that are critical for effective deterrence against potential adversaries.

Trilateral consultations should be buttressed by deeper military cooperation. The 2011 Libyan intervention demonstrated that close, multilevel ties among the U.S., British, and French air forces can produce decisive operational advantages. The three navies work together well in the Mediterranean, Arabian Gulf, and off the coast of Somalia. But they could do more to ensure their interoperability for maritime security missions in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Guinea, where potential threats come from terrorists and pirates. The three armies (especially their Special Operations forces) face growing demands to train African peacekeeping and counterterrorism forces, so improved coordination and role specialization makes sense.

Logically, trilateral cooperation should complement the 2010 Lancaster House treaties, under which Paris and London launched an ambitious bilateral program to create a muscular Combined Joint Expeditionary Force, share certain nuclear weapons-related laboratories, and improve defense industrial collaboration in future air-combat systems and anti-ship missiles. If successful, Lancaster House will set a powerful example for other Europeans to follow. This should be a "win-win" from a U.S. perspective.

However, U.S. clearance procedures for certain classified materials reportedly are hindering information sharing between British and French staff officers, slowing implementation of key Lancaster House initiatives. It’s a sensitive area, but as President Barack Obama stated in his January 17 remarks on signals intelligence: "Heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners." A meeting of the three defense ministers and other top national security officials may be necessary to come to grips with these issues and craft a practical approach.

And since you cannot "surge trust," we should continue investing in the intellectual interoperability of our future military leaders. Today, some 55 French men and women serve as exchange or liaison officers in U.S. units or study at our top professional military education institutions. Some 35 American officers occupy similar positions in France. Embedding a few senior officers in each other’s national planning staffs (as we do with British, Canadian, and Australian officers) would be a logical next step.

True, France, at times, can be a difficult partner. Yet its policies, capabilities, and operational commitments will play an important role in shaping those of other Europeans. Strengthening America’s "entente pragmatique" with our oldest ally can strengthen the transatlantic alliance as a whole.

James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is The Leader's Bookshelf. Twitter: @stavridisj