Macron Just Missed the Chance to Extend France’s Nuclear Umbrella over the Post-Brexit EU
Such a bold and purely rhetorical move would have been highly beneficial for France, the EU, and international peace, security, and stability.
With Britain, one of pre-Brexit EU’s two nuclear powers, out of the picture after Brexit Day, the other such power, France, should have seized the leadership window of opportunity, and extended its nuclear umbrella over the entire territory of the post-Brexit European Union.
Instead, all the EU got from France – and all France got from its President Emmanuel Macron – have been some hackneyed, insipid nuclear diplomacy small talk, albeit advertised as a new nuclear doctrine.
As a rule, France always aspires for European leadership, and it isn’t as through the rest of the EU doesn’t need or isn’t looking for it. Today’s EU is in at least a moderately desperate need of proper leadership, French or otherwise.
The problem is that, France, both individually and in the Franco-Germany dyad with Germany, keeps failing to live up to expectations or just keeps underperforming in that regard.
Macron’s unveiling of a new French “nuclear doctrine” earlier this month, just days after Brexit Day (January 31, 2020), is one more case in hand.
Now that France has just remained the only nuclear power in the EU, the President of the French Republic missed a golden opportunity to strengthen both his country’s and his own leadership position within the Union, and the overall security and survival of the entire European Union.
Both of those goals could have been easily achieved by declaring a French nuclear guarantee for the entire EU territory.
It is absolutely essential to realize that the security and stability of the EU is vital not just for its own citizens. It is vital for the entire world, and for those citizens of the world who are sick and tired of wars, corruption, embezzlement, dishonesty, and using state power for various kinds of abuses.
Given the forward thinking, general goodwill, and concrete steps and measures of the European Union in favor of promoting peace, providing mass-scale humanitarian assistance, and, what’s more important than ever, fighting climate change – the EU is an asset for any decent person out there, not just for itself and its own good people.
Guaranteeing that the EU would not be blackmailed, extorted, intimidated, or even shattered to bits and pieces by malicious dictators, many of them at its very doorstep, is a huge part of allowing the EU the opportunity to make a real difference in the world of today.
It is thus of utmost importance for the EU as a whole and every single one of its member states to make sure that their Union can be defended successfully against those foreign leader who wish it ill as they are unable to understand that today’s stakes are much higher for the entire humankind than anything their distorted, atavistic brains could ever imagine.
The EU must be able to stand up for itself if it is going to do anybody any good, and it is inconceivable that it would be able to do that without being a major international power with the capability to fend off nuclear blackmail, or, God forbid, to retaliate against a nuclear attack.
It’s hard to say which of these three attributes is being lacked the worst by the EU, the unique supranational power of the present and the future: a nuclear capability, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, or a full-fledged, medium-sized but fully capable Union military with sufficient power project capabilities.
None of those seem to be much in the making, which is, once again, bad news for everybody because the EU’s potential for spearheading as well as realizing positive change is important for all.
However, at least with respect to the EU’s lack of nuclear capabilities, France could have provided an easy fix, especially now that it has remained the only EU nuclear power after Britain’s voluntary Brexit downshifting.
(That is, of course, not counting Cold War Era tactical US nukes still stationed in Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands (as well as non-EU state Turkey) which could theoretically be used by the host country under certain conditions.)
Instead of making some banal statements that the EU “cannot remain spectators” in arms races, and that “the vital interests of France now have a European dimension” (indeed! They seem to have had that for…ever), Macron should have made a highly convincing declaration that France would be extending its nuclear umbrella over all 27 member states of the post-Brexit EU.
Macron should have stated that the French nuclear arsenal would be used to retaliate against any potential nuclear attack targeting EU soil. Plain and simple.
Why would he even want to consider doing that?
First, to solidify France’s leadership position within the EU, together with Germany in “Franco-Germany”, and/or on its own – by using one of its top assets, the French military capabilities. (France does remain one of the three countries in the world, the other two being the United States and the United Kingdom, with arguably global power projection capabilities.)
Second, to guarantee the overall security and stability of the EU vis-à-vis any potential adversaries with nuclear capabilities or the aspiration to acquire them. Because the EU’s security would to the benefit of the good people of France, Europe, and the world as a whole.
Third, to plug, at least rhetorically, some major loopholes in the security and defense of the entire West stemming from the NATO – EU discrepancy, i.e. how the memberships of these two entities do not coincide, leaving non-NATO EU members exposed. The simple act of making the EU a collective member of NATO would largely resolve that but Western leaders aren’t able to reach a working consensus even on such a simple state.
Fourth, to demonstrate some European security independence from the United States of America. While NATO remains crucial to European and Western security, with perplexing figures such as Trump getting elected “leader of the free world” and “most powerful man (human) on Earth”, the EU should have taken care of its own defense capabilities a very long time ago.
Last but not least, Macron should have extended the French nuclear umbrella to the entire EU territory immediately after Brexit because, while such a move would have brought all those benefits mentioned above, it would have cost him or France absolutely nothing – other than some bold statements.
If France extended its nuclear umbrella over the entire EU, it wouldn’t be surrendering its nuclear arsenal to Brussels, or anything of the sort. It would just promote itself to a guarantor of EU security existence in the face of nuclear or WMD threats.
France would just declare that it would use its capabilities to strike back on behalf of the EU at any adversary in the hopefully highly unlikely scenario that such an adversary might make the mistake of launching a nuclear attack against any bit of EU territory. And it would do that regardless of NATO and/or the United States (which doesn’t mean ignoring or abandoning them, of course).
Such a French nuclear umbrella for the entire EU could be just a bluff. It probably should be just a bluff. That wouldn’t have mattered as long as it could just a little convincing – it would still help achieve all those beneficial goals mentioned above.
And if push ever came to shove, say, if somebody actually attacked some part of the EU which is remote from Eiffel Tower and Champs-Elysee, such as Poland, the Baltic States, Finland, or Cyprus, France wouldn’t be obliged to do anything anyway.
There would be no power to force it to do anything. Depending on the highly hypothetical situation, the respective French leader might decide it is a good idea for it to retaliate on behalf of the EU with its nuclear arsenal. Or it might decide that it isn’t – and that wouldn’t be the first time a great power wouldn’t live up to a security guarantee.
But the highly hypothetical nature of such scenarios, whose development is impossible to predict, does not negate the benefits of just making a nuclear umbrella statement.
Nuclear deterrence, credibility, and nuclear relations are such a tricky business, and when there is nothing in place – in this case, at least some parts of the EU have no theoretical cover from a potential nuclear attack – even empty words are better than nothing.
And nobody would be able tell for sure if the words in question might be empty or not – let potential nuclear adversaries or blackmailers rack their brains and scratch their heads over your nuclear credibility. Let them worry about whether a nuclear-armed France would actually live up to such a nuclear umbrella promise and strike back on behalf of Lithuania, Sweden, or Greece.
And nobody can know or tell what would or wouldn’t be a good idea in the event of a major nuclear war involving Europe. Perhaps France would honor such a guarantee. Or perhaps it might even find itself forced to retaliate against a nuclear attack against EU soil outside of France anyways, even though it might have failed to issue such “nuclear umbrella” guarantee (as is presently the case).
In a world where it has become crystal clear to any dictator out there, and even to some established or aspiring democracies that giving up your nukes is a bad idea if you want to survive (often literally), as I argue in detail in my book “Got Nukes, Mr. Dictator?”, a French nuclear umbrella to the entire EU, regardless of how credible, non-credible, or incredible it might be, could do wonders for the security of the European Union and therefore for wider international stability.
Not to mention the tons of political capital it would have raised for France within the EU, and for Macron himself.
But instead of declaring that France would defend the EU against nuclear threats by retaliating against any potential nuclear attack against EU soil, French leader Macron went for a number of generalizing statements, and just days after Britain, the other nuclear EU power, had left the Union, (as quoted by France24: )
“[EU member states] cannot remain spectators [against a threat to the continent’s collective security such as a new nuclear arms race.]
“In the absence of a legal framework, they could rapidly face a new race for conventional weapons, even nuclear weapons, on their own soil.”
“[A Cold War-style standoff]… could jeopardize the peace obtained after so many tragedies on our continent”, Macron said.
“[There is] the possibility of a pure and unrestrained military and nuclear competition, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the end of the 1960s”.
“The vital interests of France now have a European dimension.”
“Let us be clear: if negotiations and a more comprehensive treaty are possible… Europeans must be stakeholders and signatories, because it’s our territory” that is most at risk.”
“[France has already reduced the number of its warheads to under 300 giving it] the legitimacy to demand concrete moves from other nuclear powers toward global disarmament that is gradual, credible and can be verified”.
“Our independence in terms of decision-making is fully compatible with an unshakeable solidarity with our European partners.”
“Why are they not ready to make defense a budget priority and make the necessary sacrifices, even as the risks are growing?”
The report further added:
“Macron also warned of the need for “a greater capacity for autonomous action by Europeans”, who must step up their military spending.
Macron invited European partners to engage in a “strategic dialogue” on the deterrent role of France’s nuclear capacity as the country embarks on a costly modernization of its arsenal.”
All those sound like sentences that Macron might as well have not said. Or sentences he might have uttered on a sunny Paris Sunday afternoon sometime before the Brexit referendum (and before he got elected President of the French Republic), or at least during the “no man’s time” between the Brexit referendum and Brexit Day. These certainly don’t seem worthy of the Union’s only nuclear power (which on top of that happens to be France with all of its history) right at the moment when it had just became the Union’s only nuclear power.
There just doesn’t seem to be anything particularly notable about Macron’s new nuclear doctrine speech, not to speak of anything bold or novel.
Consider a further quote from the report:
“But he stopped short of offering to share France’s nuclear deterrence capabilities, a pillar of its security strategy since implemented by Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s.”
Nobody should miss the point that France doesn’t need to “share its nuclear deterrence capabilities” with anybody, but it could make a difference by improving EU security by making serious declarations about extending its nuclear umbrella over the entire territory of the EU.
Instead, Macron called on EU member states to play a direct role in halting a new nuclear arms race. How are they supposed to do that? Especially considering the toothlessness largely stemming from the fact that the EU is not a nuclear power itself, and doesn’t have military capabilities of its own.
There is already the nice and noble initiative of Germany and Sweden, a conference of non-nuclear states trying to abolish nuclear weapons. Which sounds swell at least in principle. Actually, not even in principle because, on closer thought, it is very likely that a world without nuclear weapons in its present form might be a lot less stable, less secure, and more war-prone.
At least for the foreseeable future, the case of nuclear weapons will be the same sad situation as it has been since they were invented: it’s not about ridding the world of them, it’s about limiting their spread as much as possible, while also maintain the stability of the existing nuclear balances.
The NPT, the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, has done a decent job about that so far. Not perfect but decent. In order to be bolstered, it doesn’t need more lofty talks by non-nuclear states, it needs serious action and preparedness to act in order to defend it. Such as extending a nuclear umbrella to the states you are closely integrated with – that is a great tool for non-proliferation!
Nuclear weapons won’t go away until they become technologically obsolete, i.e. until “conventional weapons” or new forms of non-conventional weapons are developed that can fulfill the roughly same roles of guaranteeing MAD, nuclear deterrance, and containment.
Despite his great promise at the start, Macron has already disappointed in many ways, especially as far as providing leadership for the EU is concerned. He shamefully vetoed the start of EU accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia last fall. He has joined the (Western European) chorus of bashing Eastern Europeans, and his comment about NATO being “brain dead” helped hurt the unity and credibility of the Alliance instead of strengthening them (if that was ever the intention).
Now Macron seems to be active in trying to broker a new grand bargain between the United States of Donald Trump and Russia of Vladimir Putin. Which could be great – who doesn’t want good relations between those two powers? – except the way it seems to be approached could end up being detrimental to many of France’s fellow EU and NATO member states. And that would very, very wrong.
Extending the French nuclear umbrella to the entire EU – in words only because there is no other way of actually doing it – immediately after Brexit Day would have been a great move by Macron to the benefit of France, the entire EU, and international peace, security, and stability.
Instead, with his neither-here-nor-there nuclear speech, Macron has disappointed once again. He did miss a great window of leadership opportunity for France, and of stability opportunity for the EU.
That’s to the benefit of potential nuclear extortionists regardless of whether they already have the nukes or are striving to get them.
Banner image: Video grab from Macron’s Twitter profile