Money and power – the argument for Anglo-French defence cooperation

By Phillip Souta

A talk was regularly given to new officials starting at the French foreign ministry, the Quai d’Orsay, in the 1970s. No question marks or exclamation marks were to be used in official documents. The Quai asked itself no questions and was never officially surprised. That guidance can’t have survived the changes of the last 30 years.

Vanguard Class Royal Navy SSBN. Photograph: Royal Navy

President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron met in London today to discuss a level of military cooperation that has never been attempted or achieved before.  Details of the results can be found here.  Why now? Money and power – we are running critically short on both.

Our shared interests have been thrown into sharp relief by the prolonged financial crisis and our ebbing global power.  We are fortunate enough to live in a world governed by rules on trade and the general conduct of international affairs that are largely of our own making.  They benefit us hugely, but there is no guarantee that these rules will continue to exist.

Rules protect weakness from power, and it has always been the weak that seek to protect the rules.  One need only look at the recent and reluctant European agreement to reform the International Monetary Fund to make it more representative of China, India and others to see how the tables on us our turning – we were once powerful, but now every step is a rear-guard action.

This is compounded by the fact that public funds are under a great deal of pressure, which is unlikely to recede.

We simply cannot afford to meet our strategic objectives which are open markets, freedom, fairness, and peace. In short, a world governed by rules – fair, in the fashionable language, for all.

In order to protect those interests, the UK needs to be at the top table of global decision making.  That depends a good deal on our hard power, which is clearly dwindling, and the same is true of France.  We have finally realised, in Europe and America that the world is shifting away from the 1945 Washington consensus.

The UK and France working together have a chance to cooperate to save money whilst maintaining hard-power military capabilities.  This will allow us to look those rising powers with stratospheric growth and military spending in the face, and continue to push our case for a rules based world.

What, however, does that mean, in the currency of realpolitik? Refuelling, heavy lift, talk of joint nuclear warhead maintenance and further down the line, shared carrier patrols with aircraft interoperability and an ultimately shared nuclear deterrent. The conference today will touch on many, and perhaps all of those things.

Sharing aircraft carriers and other sharp-end assets posses the biggest challenge. The configuration that has been agreed involves French and UK carriers taking it in turns to stay at sea, but what would happen if the carrier on patrol was French and a Falklands type situation flared up? France might consider it against its interests to deploy the asset and the UK would be stuck.

Operational independence, however, is only a problem if the UK, France and other European countries need to be independent of each other. That is another question we are forced to grapple with in the current climate.

We may face a choice of drastically reduced individual power which is nonetheless totally independent or the pooling of assets, greater power and loss of individual independence.

We decided a long time ago to swap independence for effectiveness in trade regulation. This is a question that will become more pronounced over time in the area of defence. The answer that seems obvious in thirty years will seem revolutionary now.

Our interests and values are so closely aligned that working ever more closely with our allies is the way forward. That’s a long way off however, and practical measures that do not impact national operational independence are, ironically, a necessary step.

Europe needs to be a pillar of Nato. The American strategic assessment of the world today demands it and it is what America wants.

We need it because we can’t put defence spending above welfare, health and education. We are not Sparta and the public’s priorities are drawn on a canvas of family income, not the rise and fall of great powers. That is as it should be and we shouldn’t bankrupt our countries by maintaining assets we can ultimately pool.