The Duck of Minerva

When States Doth Protest Too Much

23 January 2006

In a speech last week at a nuclear submarine base in Brittany, French President Jacques Chirac signaled a shift in his country’s nuclear doctrine (for coverage see here, here, and here; for hilarity, see Chirol over at Coming Anarchy). The speech outlined the reconfiguration of French doctrine which reflects Chirac’s concern with ability of regional powers/actors to threaten French strategic concerns. This shift has been in the works for over a decade (see here). Specifically, Chirac noted that France’s nuclear arsenal has been reconfigured to allow for tactical, retaliatory strikes against terrorists and state-sponsors who threaten French interets.

Some have speculated that given the timing of the speech the threat was aimed at Iran. Others have noted that Chirac may be trying to signal both the US as well as the rest of Europe that the current global hegemon does not have a monopoly on the use of nuclear coercion–yet another example of Chirac trying to create a couterwieght to US power in the West. Finally, there is wide speculation that the intended audience was domestic, as Chirac tries to justify a costly nuclear program that has come under public scrutiny. My best guess is that the speech was aimed at Chirac’s domestic audience first, the US and Europe second. If it was, in fact, aimed at Iran it is likely to be, at best, absolutely worthless, at worst, couterproductive. Such “tough talk” signals military weakness more than anything.

The rearticulation of nuclear doctrine is classic political rhetoric aimed at justifying the continuation of a program whose original rationale has faded. During the Cold War, it was much easier to justify France’s independent nuclear program given a) the threat of the Soviets and b) the potential lack of incentive for the US to risk nuclear war in order to defend France (at least, this was the perception in France). France felt the same pressure as other middle powers such as the British and the Chinese; given the unreliablity of promises to protect their security from both superpowers, these middle powers sought an independent, minimal nuclear threat that would dissuade attack by rival superpowers. (For the entire see Avery Goldstein’s Deterrence and Security in the 21st Century: China, Britain, France, and the Enduring Legacy of the Nuclear Revolution.)

The problem now is that the red menace no longer exists, the Cold War has ended, and many are calling for a reduction or dismantling of an expensive defense program. So what do you do? You need to repackage the program, deploy a new rationale in order to placate your critics. This does not mean that the repackaged rationale is wrong (I happen to think that nuclear weapons are still relevant, that is why so many states still want to obtain them), however. But in politics, as in most aspects of social life, it is not enough that something is correct or justifiable. People do not simply draw the correct conclusion because something is objectively true–you must convince others that it is so. Chirac knows this and is essentially trying to convince the French public that the country’s 348 nuclear weapons are still relevant.

Additionally, Chirac has long been concerned with unifying the powers of Europe in such a way that the group can act as a (partial) counterweight to US power. This isn’t some call for military balancing aimed at defending against or coercing the US, but rather providing a power center that must be taken into account by the US when it comes to deciding the flavor of global policy. Interestingly, Chirac has essentially laid out a policy of tactical nuclear deterrence which echoes the declaratory policy of the US. From the WA Post:

“The leaders of states who would use terrorist means against us, as well as those who would envision using . . . weapons of mass destruction, must understand that they would lay themselves open to a firm and fitting response on our part,” Chirac said during a visit to a nuclear submarine base in Brittany. “This response could be a conventional one. It could also be of a different kind.”

This logic is identical to elements of the “Bush Doctrine” as well as the nuclear posture review of the US: we are threatened by non-state actors who might use WMDs in an attack on our interests–since we can’t deter these actors (engineering effective punishment targets is problematized by their states) we must deter those states that would sponsor and supply these groups with the means to do us harm. (This is why, by the way, the claim that the Bush administration no longer believes in deterrence–a claim hinted at by the administration and many times cited by journalists and analysts–is flat wrong.) By essentially assimilating the same prospective and strategy as the US Chirac may hope to create a “magnet” in Europe that may attrack states who agree with the need to take a military approach but are dissatisfied with what they perceive as US unilateralism–the utlimate end, of course, is for Europe to eventually pool its defense and foreign policy resources. However, early reactions have not been favorable, as many countries have voiced their dissapproval with Chirac’s announcement.

Besides the domestic and ally signaling, how is the announcement likely to play against actually military threats? Poorly. Deterrence works (when properly implemented)–I believe this, and the evidence I have seen has formed the basis of that belief. This threat, however, does not appear to me to have the elements of a successful deterrent threat.

Tough talk is rarely enough for deterrence to work. Simply making public threats, while helpful in certain circumstances, can be counterproductive. Tough talk that is viewed as incredible by adversaries can backfire if its perceived as a bluff due to weakness or lack of resolve (which, I would argue, is what many will view this as in the case of France). By resorting to the threat of nuclear retaliation against regional powers that threaten French vital interests, France may be signaling weakness, essentially saying “we don’t have the conventionl capacity to protect our interests abroad and to project power, so we must rely on a nuclear deterrent to do the job and hope you all are buying”. The notion of nuclear retaliation for a supported terrorist attack or threat to strategic resources, such as oil, is on its face not credible. It is reminiscent of the old US policy of massive retaliation, whereby communist aggression anywhere in the world was to be met by nuclear retaliation against the Soviets. The dissproportionate nature of the threat and response is not likely to be believed. The likelihood that France would be the first state since World War II to use nuclear weapons against another for playing a supportive/indirect role in an attack against it is tough to believe. I, for one, find it laughable.

Then there is the Iran angle. How this is going to make Iran stand up and take notice I am not sure–the threat is so open ended as to be worthless. If Iran sponsors a terrorist attack against France they will be punished–do they sponsor a great deal of terrorism today against France? Israel, sure, but France? Besides the string of attacks in the 1980s I am not aware of a concerted campaign against France by Iran recently. Is France really willing to use nuclear weapons against Iran if it threatens access to oil (something intimated by Chirac and the articulation of the posture)? Not likely, and they have done nothing to tie thier hands so that this threat would be more credible. Furthermore, the threat is not specific as to states that simply acquire nuclear weapons (although Chirac did comment about states that acquire these weapons in violation of international treaties). Even the US has not hinted at a nuclear strike against nuclear facilities in Iran. So, France is going to carry out such an attack? Again, not buying, and I don’t think Iran is either. If anything, this kind of threat gives great political and diplomatic cover for the Iranians to stand obstinant in the face of international pressure. Will this threat spur Iran’s program? Not really. Iran’s course was set years ago, development does not shift gears overnight.

Chirac’s tough talk reveals the weakness of France as a global power capable of defending itself and its strategic interests abroad. And while the speech may have been chiefly aimed at audiences in France and Europe, it will not doubt affect perceptions of France by potential rivals abroad–both revealing and reinforcing weakness.

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