In the news in recent days has been the recent Anglo-French Defence Accords, the ‘Entente Frugale‘, as the Faceless Bureaucrat put it. A number of commenters have remarked upon the lack of debate about it. This too perplexed, and annoyed, me. Why was there no debate? Within KOW we have views on the matter, dissimilar as it turns out. Rob and I invite you then to read our exchange upon the pros and cons. As always please do feel free to add your own two penneth in the comments, politely and sensibly.
9 November 2010
As you have kindly allowed me to go first in our little exchange of views on Anglo-French defence cooperation, I have assumed I can hijack the terms of the debate!
By way of context, and I think our first point of separation, I have always been a soft-Europhile. Whilst I think European ‘peace in our time’ cannot be put solely down to the creation and expansion of various iterations of the EU, I think the ‘European project’ (a particular mindset) has made a serious contribution to European states not repeating the mistakes of the past. I should qualify those remarks with ‘the British caveat’, which is that we have remained curiously immune (as a body politic) to this pan-European rapprochement, and rightly think of ourselves as an island nation taking part in the most sensible trading bloc for us. We have also magnanimously decided to allow those ‘continental foreigners’ to become a one-ship’s company, because it means ‘we don’t have to sort their mess out again’. This mindset is amongst us humble ordinaries, and has not been replicated amongst our political elites, who have pursued far more integrationist policies. So, in short, I’ve always been very happy with our European membership, with our trading links and with only having to exchange my currency once (something which is a God-send to me).
Now, my soft Europhilia (which is rapidly beginning to sound like a disease I’ve picked up…) has been tempered by my Britishness when it came to all matters defence, and particularly when it came to intelligence (but that’s not for now). Our most natural allegiance is, I would still maintain, to the US. But I do think there is a glaring irony that for 8years European leaders thumbed their rhetorical noses at GW Bush and yet bowed to most of his military demands, whilst Obama (the most European President going, and one loved by European political elites) has been practically snubbed across the military piece. As Americans I have known would say, ‘go figure’.
The change to my view about Anglo-French defence cooperation came with the Saint Malo Accords (in 1998), something I partially wrote my PhD about. The accords were drawn up in a hurry by high level civil servants on both sides, indeed overnight, and the text was signed the next morning. Neither side really knew what they had embarked upon, they just wanted to signal a positive intent. Their mistake was, of course, to widen this initiative out to the wider European Union, thus ensuring that it died, horribly, in the long grass. So, my first argument is that widening it out to the European Union ensured that a Europeanised defence policy was unworkable, this recent initiative brings it back to its 1998 routes and re-captures the workable elements.
I think the recent Anglo-French accord also is emblematic of the age – it deals with a large amount of the more prosaic issues, like capabilities and equipment. More joint working – and not within the EU’s EDA structure. The same for maintenance, bilateral and efficient. It’s the austerity accord, a pragmatic patch-up. What’s not to like? So, my second argument is that it’s sensible austerity politics.
I think it can be said that France is our number two defence friend. America will always be our number one friend, because it has the best kit, and is closest to our cultural understanding of ourselves. We like being America’s friend, and we have a hunch that they like us too. In terms of recent history, joint operations, joint working and attempts at pooling defence capabilities, France is our second best friend. Whilst its role in the Falklands conflict was patchy, it might prove to be an invaluable friend if The Times letters column is anything to go by today. My third argument is that strengthened bilateral relations with France makes sense, because it will act as a force multiplier (potentially) and also provides us with some additional cover, something which will become more important in the next twenty to thirty years.
11 November 2010
Dear Rob, I don’t mind at all you hijacking the terms of the debate. I too am Europhile, culturally very much so, my aesthetic sense is very European–the music I like to hear, the food and drink I crave the most, the sorts of architecture I like to be around and to live in, and the landscapes that please my eye. What I do not admire is the political aspects of the ‘European Project’ specifically the European Union. In fact, I detest it, and there’s a lot not to like: its wastefulness, its meddlesomeness and, above all, its elitist and undemocratic functioning which I find very un-British. The assertion that it has prevented the return of war to the European continent is just that, an assertion–unprovable and to my mind implausible given other explanations such as the unifying effect of the Cold War, the calming presence of the United States and NATO, not to mention the very evident object lesson of mass graves, blasted cities, burned up factories and the like which took decades to put right and are even still to be observed most places in Europe without difficulty. But let’s not rehash the EU ‘what is it good is it for?’ (good God y’all, absolutely nuthin, say it again) debate which rages across the land periodically albeit inconclusively because no British government will dare to actually ask the people what they want. Let’s stick to the narrower question of the pros and cons of the recent UK-France defence team-up.
As it happens, I am not utterly unalterably opposed. It may, as you say, be good austerity politics allowing us both to obtain more for less. Moreover, as any serious student of military history and power knows the French have a very good army–hard-training, hard-fighting and well-equipped. And too it would not be the first time we have done this. It’s a pragmatic move, you say, and ‘what’s not to like?’ Well, one thing that is very much not to like is the way that it was all decided, signed and sealed and delivered. Where was the debate? This initiative, like so much else in public policy that has the word Europe attached to it, was railroaded through without much of any discusion as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Which it is not. If there had been a debate then quite a few things could have gone down on the negative side of the ledger.
For starters, Britain and France really do not see eye to eye on many quite consequential aspects of international relations. Of course this has all taken place in the shadow of Iraq which no doubt contributes to the feeling of some that having our hands tied a little in that instance might have saved us from having our fingers singed. They were against, we were for, and ten years later it would be hard to blame a lot of people for thinking they had the better view of it. But go back just a little further to mid-1990s to the Yugoslav conflict where we had quite different ideas about right and wrong, what to do to whom, when and how. Or take Rwanda–more or less all of Francophone Africa, in fact–where our policies are markedly different. The Falklands is the least of it. At least in that case they supplied technical and other data on the Exocet missiles that were sinking our ships–which was more help than the United States provided.
The truth is that the last time we teamed up with the French for something warlike was 1956 and that was a debacle from which we drew polar opposite lessons. My point here is not that we should, as the dilemma is frequently cast, be more or less close to France (or Europe) than to the United States as though we were adjusting the balance on a car stereo; it is rather that we need to have a degree of independent capability that this initiative compromises. Claims that it does not are absurd–the already too small Royal Navy is to be halved by its own admirals in order to pay for two aircraft carriers which we will share (somehow) with no airplanes at all for ten years at least. Bonkers. It makes no sense. The UK is behaving the way a man who has fallen through a frozen lake and is about to drown behaves, flailing in panic and making his situation worse by battering the ice around him when what is needed is clearheaded stock-taking and methodic self-rescue.
At the Sarkozy-Cameron press conference Sarkozy took affront at the question of a BBC journalist about what would happen in the event of an attack upon the Falklands which required the use of the shared carrier. ‘What kind of image do you have of France?’ he asked. A very apposite question which absolutely deserves a clearheaded answer. Here’s mine, for what it’s worth. I see a country which has foreign and defence policy beliefs which are different from our own. I see a country which will, when push comes to shove, act in its self-interest–and why should they not? I see a country which is led now by an unpopular man whose Atlanticist instincts are in French political terms extreme. If we could say that France for the next 50 years would exhibit the sorts of attitudes which it does now under Sarkozy then I might be somewhat mollified. But of course that is not possible and so one must consider that France is also the country of de Villepin, not to mention de Gaulle, and therefore I think it justified to fear duplicitousness, that we will one day have need of some shared capability and find it not forthcoming.
If my French friends feel insulted by this I could point out that the Americans too are fond of the expression ‘a nation has no permanent friends, only permanent interests.’ I might say that this is just the way that the world works. It’s Realism, yeah? Self-help, anarchy, the security dilemma and all that. Except I don’t actually believe that, at least not that starkly. I think that Britain has in the ‘Anglosphere’ a community with a quite high degree of shared values and interests. This includes the United States, of course, but I would say that they are the least reliable both empirically and intuitively. Why do we not try to make more of rather more deeply held cultural links with certain countries of the Commonwealth with whom we have quietly maintained a high degree of defence cooperation for decades before and since 1973? As you know, I am a naturalized Briton born in Canada not here. I still find it curious of the native British temperament that so many people have of this apparent cringe at the notion of British greatness. It’s perplexing and annoying and we need to snap out of it. I feel that the Anglo-French accords are not ‘emblematic of the age’ they are merely symbolic of a nation that for too long has preferred to pull the covers over its head rather than wake up. This is the last scrap of the safety blanket. When it too is gone I wonder what we’ll cover our privates with then?
Fancy another round?
12 November 2010.
I enjoyed your reply a lot. You have neatly boxed me in on several fronts, so let me concede some ground straight away. I cannot defend a lot of budgetary aspects of the EU and I wouldn’t want to, to be honest. The CAP is a pan-European disgrace, and whilst the new members have been frozen out of the jam for breakfast, jam for lunch and beef for dinner diet, it remains a poor indictment of an originally laudable project, which has done some good works for the more disadvantaged in our various societies. One only needs to go to Cornwall to see infrastructure funding in action. I also cannot field much of an argument against your charge that France is currently in a curiously Atlanticist frame of mind, in the context of its recent history. The only arguments I can field against this charge are found in the intelligence realm, where the French exterior intelligence service has happily and effectively played alongside British and American agencies and interests. My personal view is that it is the security sphere which will march on a pace in the next twenty years and regardless of the French political leadership, its security structures will continue to play ball – they did so under very difficult leadership in the 1980s. Our post-colonial interests have clearly clashed in the way you suggest, and whilst I am more optimistic than you about the French involvement with the Falklands, I do concede that it is a ‘threat to the model’.
I can’t let you have the absence of a political debate though. This was no more hastily negotiated and signed than those Saint Malo Accords and much of government, particularly at our end of events, is decided without reference to a grand public debate. Afterall, would the great British public be terribly chuffed with some of the hideously repressive regimes that HMG does business with, for all good strategic reasons? I wouldn’t have thought so. The Government is, as the government does, and so it should be. If the Falklands are lost because the French did something reprehensible, then the government would rightly receive an electoral drubbing. Personally, I am entirely at ease with a political system which allows us voters to make an electoral decision based on own particular foibles. The student demonstrators, so vocal and agitated this week, will probably never vote Liberal Democrat again, based on what they rightly see as Nick Clegg’s volte face on the fees issue.
I do think you’re right when you speak of the realist understanding of the international system. And if I follow your logic on then it makes perfect sense for the UK to hedge their bets and seek to spread their risks across more than one key global player (hence the parallel developments with Brazil and India) . I think it makes sense to try and take advantage of the synergies we might enjoy with our nearest neighbour, and also it will help us constrain them in Europe – talk of European armies and joint defence (outside of NATO) are next to impossible if the UK and France sit in the box seat of European defence politics, rather than France on its own. Perhaps it might even lead the French down a more permanent line of Atlanticism? None of us can accurately predict how this will pan out, but I am quietly hopeful for a series of positive results: this may be British greatness secured through networks of influence.. not quite the same as the cartographic pink, but the best we can hope for right now?
12 November 2010
Dear Rob, thank you for conceding the indefensible which saves us both time and energy. It only remains for me to assail the final redoubt around which you have erected a flimsy cordon. No, wait, I can’t resist one aside. Why venture to Cornwall to see the results of two decades of EU ‘infrastructure investment’? Go to Newcastle and see six decades of state life support. The results will not please you. Readers, it was Rob’s birthday yesterday so he will not have watched yesterday’s Newsnight report on EU ‘infrastructure investments’ such as the quarter million on a Hungarian dog physical rehabilitation clinic—a strange sort of investment that would have been if it had actually been spent on that instead of just going into someone’s pocket, as it did—or the city of Naples using its cultural investment money to book an Elton John concert. Oh well, to the EUrocrats it’s all ‘stimulus’, pure economic goodness whatever it’s actually spent on. There’s a theory behind this, I recall it was popular in Roman days, it’s called ‘Bread and Circuses’. Ah, The Fall of Rome. Happy Days.
But I digress. Let’s deal with the cordon. You mention intelligence sharing which I shall, in turn, concede is a good thing. This is more your area than mine; however, I was given to understand that a good deal of effective intelligence sharing was going on even before these accords, their being self-evident self-interest on the part of all to do it they have done so. These accords, however, rather indicate a larger form of sharing. In particular, sharing of defence technology (how else do you run a joint aircraft carrier?) including on the Holy of Holies, the nuclear deterrent.
In such light it is noteworthy that while our own PM was in China this week drumming up business, so too was Sarkozy on a trip of his own the week before. On that trip he announced some £20 billion (actually I can’t recall if it was Euros or Dollars, anyway a lot) in contracts across a suite of technologies including defence. Now what do you think is the likelihood that France and the United States see the desirability of certain technology transfers to China in the same way? And since France and UK are now playing sharesies how do you reckon the Americans might look upon the UK-US status quo? Dimly, one presumes. So, what have we gotten from the deal? The potential screwing up of a relationship that means a lot in order to… what exactly are we getting from France again?
And now the last redoubt: ‘None of us can accurately predict how this will pan out, but I am quietly hopeful for a series of positive results: this may be British greatness secured through networks of influence… not quite the same as the cartographic pink, but the best we can hope for right now?’ Ah, hope. Quite. Who was it that said ‘hope is not a strategy’? Genius, that man.
Alas, though presumptuous of me to say so, while I stand on the wreckage of your battlements, the battle won is really not. Because in the real world the country has been sold a pup, again, and there’s f’all to be done about it.