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Is a new entente cordiale on the horizon?

Submitted by on 30 Nov 2010 – 15:40

By Dr Duncan Anderson, Head of War Studies, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst

This month President Sarkozy will meet with Prime Minister Cameron for this year’s much heralded summit. The French have been preparing their ground carefully since the start of the year, courting the Conservative elite while still in opposition, and carefully allaying the doubts of Eurosceptics such as Liam Fox, then shadow Minister of Defence. Since the last Anglo-French talks, Sarkozy has brought France back into the NATO military command structure. This move was designed to prove that France no longer harbours a design to replace NATO with a European Army. It has, however, led to the accusation from some quarters that France secretly intends to destroy NATO from within — an indication of the mutual suspicion which continues to overshadow Anglo-French military relations.

There have been other Anglo-French military summits but the atmosphere surrounding this one is different, and so are the expectations. Both countries, struggling with major economic problems, believe themselves to be in decline relative not just to the United States but also to China and India. This malaise is particularly strong in Britain, where the debacle in Basra has soured relations with Washington, if not with more understanding old friends in the American armed forces.  For more than 60 years the British Army had prided itself on its ability to conduct counter-insurgency operations more effectively than any other nation. We patronised the Americans, and we are now paying the price for our hubris. The cosy relationship that existed during the presidencies of Clinton and Bush no longer exists; indeed, there is a distinct chill, exemplified by Harold Evan’s report of Obama’s removal of the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office and its return to London.

Both the prime minister and president are approaching this meeting with a determination to achieve something more than another St Malo declaration. The press offices in both Paris and London have been deliberately playing down the more exaggerated expectations, and have been leaking information on areas where co-operation will be of practical benefit. Speculation that ballistic missile submarines and aircraft carriers would have joint crews has been denied. However, discussions are continuing over proposals for co-ordinated and staggered submarine patrols which would enable both nations to enjoy their protection at reduced cost, and for modifications to the British carriers making it possible for French aircraft to operate from them. At the very least British and French submarine patrol patterns could be rationalised, so that they could avoid colliding in the middle of the Atlantic.

Unlike the British and French navies, defence industries in both countries have a long tradition of working together (notably the Jaguar fighter and a family of helicopters).  The sticking point has always been the reluctance of British and French procurement departments to purchase the others’ ordnance, even when particular items were cheaper and of superior performance. Procurement is intimately connected with local political pressures, and no nation with a democratic system has yet been able to square this particular circle, even though the most baneful effects can be mitigated by stringent controls.

A more promising area is that of logistics and maintenance. Britain and France are the only nations, apart from the United States, which aspire to maintain substantial expeditionary capabilities. Long range transport aircraft like the Boeing C-17 and the Airbus A-300 tanker could be pooled and their maintenance programmes shared, cutting costs and increasing capability. In addition, training programmes for both air and ground crew could be combined. The main barrier here might be the unwillingness of many English-speaking servicemen to become fluent in French, as opposed to Pashtu and Arabic, in which increasing numbers excel.

All this seems very modest, and a long way short of the heady days of St Malo, but it is through such comparatively small steps that the foundations for fuller co-operation can be laid. Despite the chill which now pervades relations between the White House and Downing Street, the United States will be Britain’s major ally for a long time to come. At any one time the British armed forces have between six and seven hundred officers seconded to the American military, at academies, staff colleges, training establishments, and dozens of other institutions and head quarters. Scarcely a fraction of that number is deployed with the French military – indeed, in the last few weeks some have been withdrawn as an economy measure. The problem with Anglo-French relations is that they tend to work through institutions, whereas our relations with America work through personal friendships. Thus it was that General McChrystal and General Lamb could work in perfect harmony in Kabul, and that the families of Generals Petraeus and Richards seek each other’s company, not because they have to but because they want to. Until we have a similar degree of personal interaction between the French and the British militaries, we will remain neighbours with some mutual interests – still some distance from a close partnership.