Democracies are facing their worst crisis since the 1930s, caught between the populist wave submerging them from within, and the rise of strategic risks threatening them from without.
On the one hand, the possibility of major armed conflicts has reemerged, in a context where the arms race is mobilizing over $1.8 trillion a year, where nuclear and ballistic weapons are proliferating, where space is being militarized and where cyber-attacks are intensifying. On the other hand, the Western-inspired institutions and rules that were implemented after World War II to stabilize the international system and control violence are being methodically dismantled by Donald Trump, who is liquidating the legacy of a century of US leadership.
Europe is particularly vulnerable to the protectionist, isolationist and unilateralist turn the United States recently took. It is an old, rich and unarmed continent, surrounded by young, poor peoples struggling with violence. NATO is undermined by the trade sanctions taken by the United States, which target its allies – and does so in the name of national security -, by Washington’s systematic criticism of the Alliance, and by the risk of rapprochement between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, who are united by the solidarity of strong men. At the same time, the unpredictability of the US President is discrediting expanded deterrence (i.e. the protection afforded by the Americans to their European allies) – despite the reinvestment of $1.2 billion over 30 years in atomic rearmament.
The European Union is paralyzed by a series of shocks, from the euro crisis to the influx of migrants, to the Brexit, to American protectionism and pressures from Russian and Turkish autocracies. It is torn between North and South over the management of the Eurozone, between East and West over the reception of migrants, between the continent and the United Kingdom over the implementation of Brexit, which deprives it of a third of its military potential. In short, it is facing an existential crisis.
France’s geopolitical environment is thus even more profoundly disrupted than during the collapse of the Soviet Union, yet no lessons in terms of strategy, missions and means of defence seem to be drawn.
Jihadism remains a major and daily threat. The military defeat of the Islamic state in the Levant did not lead to its disappearance but to its rebirth, through two new different forms. It became both a galaxy of jihadist forces present along an “axis of terror” that runs from Nigeria to the Philippines through the Sahel, Egypt, the Middle East and Afghanistan, and a social network nestled at the heart of democratic societies. In 2017, the number of terrorist attacks doubled in Europe, with 33 attacks – 14 in the United Kingdom and 11 in France – killing 62 people and seriously injuring 810 others.
At the same time, power politics and imperial ambitions are making a strong comeback, leading to the possibility of large-scale conflicts between states. Beijing is pursuing the annexation of the China Sea through the militarization of strategic islets, notably in the Spratly Islands. Russia is challenging Europe’s borders and has positioned itself as a key player in the Middle East. Turkey, transformed into an Islamist dictatorship – although it presents itself as a democracy – annexed northern Syria and is pursuing the eradication of the Kurds. The United States, with its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal of 14 July 2015, pursues a logic of war against Iran with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as allies. North Korea, strengthened by the Singapore summit, and whose status as a nuclear power without any tangible counterpart was recognized by Donald Trump, is secretly pursuing its atomic and ballistic programs.
Threats from Jihadism and autocracies are reinforced by the cyber revolution. Social networks are indeed used as tools for propaganda, radicalization and recruitment by the Islamic state. Russia also massively invested in social media to intervene in democracies’ decisive elections, as was the case for the 2016 American presidential election or the referendums on Brexit and Catalonia’s independence.
Europe therefore has no other choice but to take its destiny into its own hands, as Chancellor Angela Merkel said. Yet the distance between words and deeds remains significant. The rise in threats justifies a massive rearmament, along with the creation of a Security Union, the mission of which would encompass the fight against terrorism, the protection of essential infrastructures, the strengthening of cyber defence and the protection of external borders. For the time being, discord over the influx of migrants prevents any progress, while strategic visions continue to diverge when confronted to Jihadism, Russian expansionism and Turkey’s autocratic and Islamic drift.
The Europe of security is moving forward, with the rapprochement around the control of the Union’s external borders and the transformation of Frontex into a genuine border police force. European defence has taken a first step in the right direction with the creation of a fund, which will be endowed with €1.5 billion from 2020, 500 million of which will be allocated to research. France and Germany agree on the coordination of future big combat aircrafts, helicopters, tanks and maritime patrol programs. Yet this progress remains limited by the political uncertainties surrounding the coalition led by Angela Merkel in Germany, as well as by the chronic inadequacy of its military effort (1.24% of GDP in 2018, while the budget surplus reached €38 billion in 2017). Above all, there is no common strategic culture between France and Germany, which should in fine become leaders of the Security Union. Unlike France and the United Kingdom, which have developed a genuine operational cooperation under the Lancaster House treaties signed in 2010.
France therefore has a historic responsibility to respond to Europe’s security challenges. After Brexit, it remains the only country in the Union with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, an autonomous nuclear deterrent and a complete army model. However, the Military Programming Bill for years 2019 to 2025 only partially responds to the deterioration of the strategic environment of both our country and continent.
The desire to maintain a global position is consistent with the globalization currently structuring the 21st century, as with the type of diplomacy claiming it intervenes everywhere in the world. Positive elements include the pursuit of the effort in favor of cyber defence, the priority given to innovation, which will be supported by a fund of €1 billion, or the European orientation of armaments programs – mortgaged, however, by Brexit and by German export mistakes. Above all, the beginning of an upswing is underway, with the creation of 6,000 jobs – including 1,500 in intelligence and 1,500 in cyber – and the effort to regenerate forces in order to respond to the exhaustion of soldiers and their equipment.
However, the Military Programming Bill is weakened by several inconsistencies. The crisis scenarios and operational contracts of the armed forces have not been revised, while our environment has been disrupted. The sustainability of strategic autonomy and a comprehensive military model is reaffirmed, but the priority given to the regeneration of force and nuclear deterrence weighs on the modernization of equipment. The capacity shortfalls inherited from François Hollande’s five-year term will remain, particularly in the air force sector, whereas the effort made on drones is balanced by an aggravated delay in terms of combat aircraft and helicopters.
All tensions are converging towards a financial dead-end. On the one hand, there are needs of €295 billion up to 2025. On the other, only €198 billion are scheduled until 2023, i.e. during the current five-year period. The €1.7 billion increase in the budget for 2018 barely covers the integration of external operations costs, which amount to €1.3 billion, and the funding of measures decided in 2016. Our armies’ potential will therefore experience a dangerous air pocket between 2019 and 2022. And the goal of dedicating 2% of GDP to defence in 2025 involves investing an additional €3 billion each year from 2023, which seems highly unlikely. This situation is all the more paradoxical that the creation of a universal national service whose objectives remain unclear and its effectiveness dubious, but whose cost will reach up to €1.7 billion per year, remains under consideration. This budget would certainly have been more useful to the nation had it been allocated to its security.
All in all, Emmanuel Macron follows François Hollande’s footsteps by postponing France’s rearmament. This bet seems risky for at least two reasons. On the strategic level, it underestimates the upheaval in the international system and the intensity of the threats facing our country and Europe, which would justify redefining a global strategy in a post United States world. On the political level, it shows a persisting inability to regain control over public finances, which implies not only reducing spending, but also redirecting it from the welfare state to the sovereign state.
> By Nicolas Baverez, Economist and Lawyer, Chairman of Institut Montaigne’s task force Rebuilding France’s National Security