Franco-British Defence Relations 200 years after Waterloo, towards a new chapter in cooperation?

Huw Jones

Sadler Waterloo

Sadler’s ‘Battle of Waterloo’. Napoleon.org.pl via Wikimedia Commons

The 17th of June marked the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, where a British-led allied army, later reinforced by Prussia, decisively brought an end to the remerged threat of Napoleonic France. This came one year after the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War, where Britain and France found themselves allies in a conflict of unprecedented scale against the German Empire. This 100 year gap saw geopolitical developments on the European continent which threatened the shared interests of these former adversaries, making them allies throughout the 20th Century. In 2010, the Lancaster House Summit and its subsequent Treaties signed between Nicholas Sarkozy and David Cameron saw the United Kingdom and France take great strides the field of joint capabilities with the establishment of a Joint Expeditionary Force, coordination of aircraft carrier capability and unprecedented cooperation in the nuclear field which would last a 50 year period. While this was argued to be a pragmatic alignment of capabilities between two states that find themselves facing a gulf between their ambitions and available resources, concerns have been raised that a sufficient alignment of interests still remains evasive. This is a problem which is hardly new to Franco-British efforts in the realm of defence cooperation, but a schism in outlook could produce negative effects on the lasting power of these Treaties.

Upon Napoleon’s defeat and subsequent exile, the great powers of Europe met at the Congress of Vienna with a view to reordering Europe after 12 years of conflict between the Napoleonic state and the Coalitions. In doing so, they set geopolitical conditions in Europe that, while still coloured by mutual suspicion and subject to a great deal of push and pull, placed Britain and France on the path to alignment in order to uphold their visions of a European balance of power when it faced major geopolitical upsets. They did so in 1856 to contain Russian expansionism at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, in 1904 when they loosely aligned against the German Empire under Wilhelm II and finally, against the expansionism of the Third Reich in 1939. All throughout, these alignments smacked of necessity and by no means suggested that Franco-British outlooks was either fully harmonised orpermanent. Indeed, mutual Franco-British suspicion returned following the Crimean War with the two narrowly avoiding war during at the close of the 19th century during the Fashoda Incident in 1898, and the unprecedented cooperation undertaken between the two in the First World War decayed following the Versailles settlement, which greatly hobbled their coordination in preparing for the next war.

Indeed, emerging from the Second World War, there was hardly a clear cut harmony of objectives between the two critically weakened powers. France, having been defeated and occupied by Germany, became chiefly concerned with ensuring that their former enemy remained constrained while France worked to re-establish its traditional role as a premier power in Continental Europe. While the British government saw the restoration of French power as vital to European security, they were concerned by the strength of Communist political forces within France. As such, they favoured German integration into the Western European security structure in order to prevent Germany falling into the Soviet orbit, a process which emphasised cooperation with the United States to ensure American commitment to Europe’s defence. Despite Britain’s resistance to French calls for containment-like arrangements against Germany, Britain offered France assurance against German aggression through the Anglo-French Treaty at Dunkirk in 1947.

Charles De Gaulle

Upon returning to power in 1959, Charles De Gaulle strove to create an independent European ‘Third Force’ in the otherwise bi-polar environment of the Cold War. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most infamous instance of Franco-British cooperation in the realms of defence and a definitive watershed moment for the strategic outlooks of both states, was the Suez Crisis in 1956. Having to prematurely end their invasion of Egypt due to Soviet threats and American economic coercion, it dawned on both actors that they were now secondary powers in a bi-polar world order, leading to two strikingly different reactions from the two. Britain, having suffered from American economic sanctions, concluded that Britain would act chiefly in concert with allied, particularly, American forces in the future. As such, Britain undertook an increasingly Atlanticist outlook within the NATO alliance, building its forces increasingly around conducting operations with allies, particularly the United States, at the expense of the European aspect of the Alliance.

This contrasted with France, who, disappointed by its inability to strengthen its influence within the alliance structure, the Alliance’s rearming of West Germany and France’s inability use the Alliance to defend France’s colonial empire, concluded that NATO’s Atlanticist and European aspects were irrevocably contrasting. As such, De Gaulle retrenched into his vision of Europe becoming a ‘Third Force’ and set about developing an independent French nuclear arsenal. France’s ambivalence over the benefits of its continued active participation in the NATO alliance culminated with the French withdrawal from the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, NATO’s command military structure in 1966. While De Gaulle’s attempts at rapprochement with the USSR proved to yield little and French involvement NATO remained substantial, the De Gaullist mantra of ‘independence within the alliance’ continued to be pursued by his successors.

These divergent outlooks would largely guide the attitudes of both states up to the early post-Cold War world. In France’s case, the end of the Cold War brought about a steady recalculation of its stance. France’s concerns surrounding Germany had been assuaged by Mitterrand’s promotion of closer economic and military ties with Germany as a means of strengthening France’s European project. Furthermore, organisations such as NATO acted as constraints on Germany’s military policy, while France and Germany were increasingly drawn together by increased Western European economic interaction. France’s leadership still maintained that there remained a mismatch between what was beneficial for NATO and that which was beneficial for Europe, however, French involvement in the Yugoslav Wars alongside NATO forces and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe led to a steady reintegration of France into the NATO command structure by 2009.

With Franco-British defence policies being based on two contrasting outlooks, the Anglo-French Treaties in 2010 a significant chapter in cooperation between the two. True, the Post-Cold War period had seen some increased Franco-British defence coordination in the form of the St Malo and the Le Touquet summits in 1998 and 2003 respectively. These summits placed Franco-British military cooperation in a wider EU context, more in line with French visions of European security, which were subsequently complicated by Britain’s sustained Atlanticist stance. However, the Lancaster House Treaties diverge from these previous initiatives because of their bi-lateral nature, something which solicited disapproval from Germany which emphasised the importance of a wider European framework. By placing an emphasis on the bi-lateral, Britain and France downplayed joint EU military capability devolvement which proved to be a sticking point between the two in the past, reflecting the Treaties’ aim to avoid issues that have previously hindered cooperation between the two. Additionally, the Treaties maintain that should either engage in unilateral action or as part of coalitions that contradicts the interests of the other, they will not be obligated to provide that effort with the support the Treaties envisage. In freeing themselves from these constraints through a bi-lateral framework, the Lancaster House treaties marked a divergence from what has been a largely loose relationship in the realms of defence cooperation between the two.

Several reasons have been advanced in explaining why this alignment was made possible. First, the outlooks that both states formulated after the Suez crisis are facing increased irrelevance and thus creating room for a modest convergence of interests. Just as France has adapted its De Gaullist stance, the United Kingdom has come to evaluate more closely its alignment with the United States following costly involvement in conflicts in Afghanistan. Furthermore and perhaps the strongest ‘pull’ factor in facilitating these treaties was that France and Britain’s defence resources are increasingly limited by financial restraints, thus creating a mismatch between their ambitions to remain significant powers with global reach and their capability to do so. Indeed, the UK’s SDSR featured several controversial cuts to Britain’s ability to act independently, justified on the long established basis that Britain would be acting in the foreseeable future in concert with allies. However, until the Russian annexation of Crimea last year, the perception was that the US would move increasingly away from Europe and towards Asia, which in turn moved Britain to seek new partnerships in Europe. While this received some immediate validation when the US took a more modest role in the Libya intervention, leaving it to Britain and France in particular to take the lead, Russia’s annexation of Crimea has proven such conclusions to be premature. Therefore if the US does once again undertake a stronger role in Europe there may be a re-emergence of the Atlanticist/European dynamic within the Alliance, something which, despite attempts to avoid such divergences, may place the Lancaster House Treaties under strain.

Additionally, qualms following the signing of the Treaties were raised on both sides of the channel. Some analysts and politicians in Britain emphasised a perceived record of “duplicity” in French relations with their allies, emphasising that relations between the two would remain fundamentally interest based. They remained sceptical that the issue of European military integration had been set aside fully, expressing concern that France would use these agreements to further its development of NATO’s European identity. Furthermore, divergence over the future of European defence on the whole, it has been argued, will affect the long term prospects of this arrangement, a longevity that can only be sustained by political will.

The mixed results in implementing the treaties five years only lend themselves to further ambiguity surrounding their staying power. The Combined Joint Expeditionary Force saw notable success during its ‘Corsican Tiger’ exercise in 2012 and although it will be another year before the force is fully operational, there has been substantial recognition of its potential. However, the vision set out in 2010 has also suffered notable setbacks. Britain’s decision to forgo installation of catapults on the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers has greatly undermined interoperability with France by rendering the option of operating French aircraft from these carriers redundant. Additionally, while Britain provided assistance to France in its operation in Mali, there has been some scepticism in Britain surrounding French calls for increased assistance from Britain for their operations in Mali and the Central African Republic. Neither has the five years since this agreement change Britain’s fundamentally Atlanticist outlook. While these ties with France have increased the profile of the Franco-British cooperation in British defence thinking, continued precedence being placed on initiatives alongside the US.

Therefore, when putting the Lancaster House treaties into the wider two hundred year record this article has presented, it is clear that Britain and France are increasingly converging in the realms of both capability and interest. And by avoiding areas where the two do not align, the Lancaster House Treaties make it permissible for strong cooperation between the two to take place. However, Franco-British cooperation in the realms in the defence in the past has had a record questionable permanency despite some alignment of interest. A report by Chatham House on the Treaties provide a perfect summation into the fundamental driver of the Franco-British relationship by juxtaposing a quote by Charles De Gaulle: “France has no friends, only interests.” with a quote by Lord Palmerston: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”. Above all, interest has been the defining influence in Franco-British defence cooperation and regardless of the longevity of these recent agreements, the above dictum will doubtlessly prove everlasting.

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