Friday, April 12, 2024
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Is Something Happening in France?



Paris has joined the ranks of cities hosting international security forums, alongside Munich, Warsaw, Doha, Singapore, and more than a few others. It is a fair assumption that this proliferation of security conferences reflects growing insecurity and widespread fear over the unraveling of the liberal, rules-based global order. But two things about the Paris forum distinguish it from the many others; it was a call to mobilize a complacent France; and a call for the adaptation of professional military education through transformative education to prepare the next generation of security leaders for the challenges of the evolving global security environment.

The Paris Defence and Strategy Forum was held 13-14 March and attended by 2600 participants from 68 countries. In his opening plenary speech Lithuanian President Gitanas NausÄ—da set the sober tone: “Just as Czechoslovakia did not satisfy Hitler; Ukraine will not satisfy Putin. Neither will the Baltic states or Poland… Russia cannot stop; it can only be stopped… (Otherwise) others will learn the lesson that using force against Western interests works… We cannot proceed in a peace-like mode any longer.”

Indeed, there is war in Europe, war in the Middle East, jihadist insurgency throughout Africa, rising tension across the Taiwan Strait, and Iran and North Korea threaten havoc upon their neighbors. It does appear that mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. World leader after world leader has warned that these are the most dangerous times of our lives. The growing uncertainty and fear is not unjustified.

Not surprisingly there was much gnashing of teeth at the Paris Forum about the Russia/Ukraine war. Although Putin’s ultimate victory is far from assured, nor is Russia’s defeat and the prospect of a frozen conflict with Russia in occupation of 20 percent of Ukraine would be a serious blow to Europe and the West. Putin is increasingly brutal at home and bellicose abroad, threatening the Baltics, the Nordics, Moldova, and even Poland, not to mention increasingly frequent Russian threats—both implicit and explicit—of nuclear escalation.

Frontline states including the Baltic and Nordic states, Poland, Romania, and Moldova have been raising constant alarms but leaders of the larger states—particularly France, Germany, and the United States—seem frozen on the back foot—too fearful of escalation to do what is needed to defeat Russia. And their fear of escalation has been completely commandeered by Putin’s “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, leaving the West effectively deterred.

That was the context of the first Paris Defense and Strategy Forum.

But wait! on February 26 President Macron said what no other Western leader wanted to say: NATO boots on the ground in Ukraine cannot be ruled out! Was this just another instance of Macron being Macron? Or has Macron finally realized that Putin cannot be appeased, that Europe is at war with Russia, and that the French people must be prepared for a time of war? Was he riffing off the top of his head, or was he cunningly injecting strategic ambiguity to sow doubt into Putin’s final Ukraine plan? Not to mention that this year France will finally reach the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP on defense spending.

Macron was immediately rebutted by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, but his inconvenient statement has ignited a lively debate. On March 8 Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorski stated that the presence of NATO forces in Ukraine is “not unthinkable” and that he “appreciated” the French president for not ruling out the idea. In a March 10 interview Czech Republic President Petr Pavel stated he is not opposed to the official deployment of alliance troops to Ukraine. Just a few days later Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen agreed Western countries should not rule out the notion of sending troops to Ukraine. Baltic leaders have long been outspoken about the gravity of the Russian threat. Last month Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said Wednesday he was grateful for the debate that Macron had initiated, adding “nothing can be taken off the table, no option can be rejected out of hand,” while Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas insisted nothing should be ruled out in the effort to ensure that Ukraine wins and Russia loses the war. The ambiguity in the Western position that Macron has introduced should be welcomed. It is not in the West’s interest to limit its own options.

In addition to the topical issues of the day the Paris Defence and Security Forum provided insight into the human requirements for future European security beyond just military alone. According to General Benoit Durieux—Director of the Institute of Higher Studies of National Defence—“We must think in a larger framework—the non-military dimension of national defense…. Including how to counter the narratives of the authoritarian states.” A stream of sessions focused on the need to attract France’s best and brightest to the vocation of national security. A session on coercive negotiation underscored the inconvenient reality that not all conflicts have win/win options. At the Ecole Militaire General Durieux encourages transformative pedagogy in professional military education to cultivate the critical thinking strategists needed to prevail in the 21st century and highlighted the Ecole de Guerre’s leadership in this.

General Thierry Burkhard, Chief of Staff of the French Armed Forces, concluded the forum with a very sober characterization of the current security environment; “The dynamic of force has supplanted the system of law. Using one’s military power has once again become a sign of expression or affirmation of sovereignty… There is a desire to create an alternative order by countries whose common denominator is the rejection of the North, that is to say the West. Russia wants to tear down the edifice of international law put in place after the Second World War.”

Is this apparent ferment in France sufficient to motivate European and American leaders—to wake them up from their sleepwalking stroll toward defeat? Will it wake up European somnambulant publics? Is it possible Macron’s strategic ambiguity and the Paris Defence and Strategy Forum are indicative of a more strategically resolute France? That would be very welcome, but talk is talk; will French defense spending flatline at 2 percent? Will France be the first to station forces on the ground in Ukraine? Is France willing to call Putin’s bluff? Even if France does take the lead, will others follow? We shall see.


Michael Miklaucic is a Senior Fellow at National Defense University and the Editor-in-Chief of the PRISM journal. The opinions expressed in this article are his and are not official statements of policy or opinion National Defense University or the Department of Defense.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.