Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly addresses defense and security challenges at CSIS Global Leaders Forum
Thank you to the CSIS for hosting me today.
Your institution is one of the most highly-regarded in a city that has many. I am well aware that for the past six years CSIS has been named the world’s number one think tank for international security by the “GoTo Think Tank Index.” Your analyses are compulsory reading in Paris.
I should also add, as a statement of interest, that we have a fantastic cooperation with you, with some French diplomats serving as temporary fellows at CSIS. This sort of cross-fertilization between administration and academia, which is not so frequent back in France, is of immense value.
So in a word: thank you for being so good.
Think tanks have a particular relevance today. When I look at the world today, I see the Middle East on fire, widespread terror, refugee crises, tensions in the East, and the occasional nuclear test - or ballistic missile flashing by. I see a lot a tank, and not much think. Our world is transitioning to an unknown place. It is difficult to read. Your work is more important than ever.
Now, being a practitioner rather than an analyst, I will spare you a lengthy introduction. But I would like to say a few words about what I have on my mind coming here to DC as the new Minister for the Armed Forces of France.
First, We have an all-weather friendship with America. We have been friends for a long time and will remain. Yesterday October 19th marked the 236th anniversary of the Yorktown victory.
Our friendship is one of the heart and of the mind. Of the heart, because the French will never forget what America did for us when we were in distress. Of the mind, because for nations like ours, with democratic values and shared interests in an increasingly unstable world, it is indispensable to cooperate. Commentators may well expand on whether France agrees with the current administration on climate, or UNESCO, or the like.
The bottom line is: there has scarcely been a time when our two nations have been closer in military terms. We are engaged side by side in the fight against terrorism, from the Levant to the Sahel region. I have seen this with my own eyes in the field, Iraq, in Africa and elsewhere. We are also engaged together in all the visible and not so visible reassurance and deterrence activities on NATO’s Eastern flank. All this attests that France is a serious, capable and committed ally.
At the core of our partnership is the awareness that France and United States share both similar security interests and common threats, and that we can best confront them together. This is true today and will be as true, if not more so, tomorrow. France has indeed every intention to remain a serious and capable ally. Under President Macron’s guidance, my ministry is starting an enduring financial and capability buildup that will ensure just that.
Inherited from the past, the strong bilateral alliance we enjoy today must be maintained into the future, which will require the commitment of our two great nations. I have no doubt it will be the case. And I will work as much as I can to develop it further.
Second, I am particularly honored to be here, and to meet Secretary Mattis tomorrow. I have talked with him on a few occasions recently. I have been impressed by his authority, charisma, command of issues and depth of vision. This trip will also be the occasion to meet general McMaster, members of Congress, and to visit institutions of special interest to us like DARPA and SCO – as I place a particular emphasis on innovation in my ministry.
Third, It is fascinating to come here as the representative of a new French administration – an administration of a kind that we have not seen for a long time in my country. Our president is the youngest head of state since Napoleon. Most of the government comes from civil society rather than from professional politics. Gender is balanced - and well placed, I would say from my window. The President is set to reform the country thoroughly, from labor law to taxation and beyond. He is strong on defense, and will increase our budget to 2% GDP by 2025. He has a special interest in foreign affairs, with ambitious plans for the EU, a belief in norms and the power of diplomacy. He places enormous value on the transatlantic friendship. So I believe you will see a lot of us in international affairs in the coming months. Watch this space !
Coming to substance, I would like to give a few thoughts about my priorities coming here today.
The first is how to defeat terror. We have an excellent cooperation at all levels with the US on this. We have made tremendous headway recently – Raqqa fell this week. But the challenges are daunting, too.
- In Iraq, we need to support the Iraqi government in consolidating its victory against Daesh, and moving away from sectarian politics. This will take time, but we see encouraging signs. We must also work to deescalate current tensions with the Kurds.
- In Syria – by far one of the most intractable international issues today – there is still much to do. We need to eradicate Daesh from its hideout in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. There will come a time when the caliphate is no longer a geographic expression, but only an intention to kill.
This will not be the end of the story. In Syria, we will still have critical issues to address before considering a redeployment. We should make sure not to leave too much of a mess behind. This means avoiding at least four things: (i) a war with the Kurds (ii) a war involving Israel, and soon also Lebanon (iii) an unpunished use of chemical weapons (iv) a governance that will fuel terror, whether from Sunni or Shia groups. I know it sounds simple, put like this. It is not.
- In the Sahel, France is deploying 4.000 military in a high-intensity environment, with tremendous support from the US. We are immensely grateful for that support. There have been mighty achievements. We have saved Mali from the jaws of Al Qaeda. Terror groups are under pressure.
But much more needs to be done. We can’t be, and don’t want to be, the praetorians of sovereign African countries. They must be made able to defeat terror on their own. The Joint Force of the G5 Sahel is meant for that. It will start its first operations soon. It needs support. The UN wants to give support. I hope everyone can become convinced that a robust UN assistance is necessary. I would be happy if you could help spread the word in the Beltway.
Beyond these theaters of war, we have an intense cooperation with the US on terror and intelligence. I hope it will be strengthened. One day, perhaps, all the untold stories of this cooperation will be told: and that day, we will have reasons to be proud.
Our lives would be dull if there was only terror. Fortunately, there is also proliferation. Two places come to mind: Iran, North Korea.
- On Iran, we have noted President Trump’s statement. The leaders of France, Germany and the UK have reiterated both their urgent recommendation to stick to the JCPOA, and their willingness to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional activities. We need the JCPOA. Scrapping it would be a gift to Iran’s harldiners, and a first step towards future wars. But we should also be very serious about the destabilizing ballistic and regional activities. We are working on it. The issue is now in Congress. France has no desire to be embroiled in US domestic politics. But our position on the agreement is clear.
- On North Korea, we share US concerns with recent developments. France has long been the European leader on sanctions against the DPRK. We were instrumental in passing the latest package of EU measures. More pressure is necessary for any future negotiation to be meaningful. The question, though, is: do sanctions come too late ? how far is China willing to go ?
The third thing I have on my mind is how well we cooperate with the US on NATO and European security more broadly. France is a responsible NATO ally. We fully understand the US insistence on burden sharing. We are on clear path toward reaching 2% GDP in defense expenses.
And believe me, our 2% are not a headquarter percentage: they are a war-fighting 2%. Although not all our effort is in NATO, it all contributes to NATO security, whether in the Sahel, the Levant, or the North Atlantic, where our navy cooperates with the US to confront threats.
Beyond this, we strongly believe that the Europeans must do more to defend themselves. In that spirit, the French President recently decided to launch a European Intervention Initiative. We have also been key to the creation of the Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defense Fund. I’ll be happy to expand if there is interest.
I would like to conclude with a slightly more global outlook. France has just concluded a strategic review of her security environment, at the request of the French President. We face growing security challenges in multiple areas around the world. These challenges call for new thinking on how to best assure our common security, which is why we launched this strategic review.
This assessment will serve as the basis for the multi-year defense programming law that will establish defense appropriations for the next five years. I would like to give you a primer on some of its main findings. The only thing I can say is: it’s bleak.
- The threats and risks we identified in our 2013 White Paper materialized more forcefully and more simultaneously than expected. Europe faces the greatest concentration of challenges since the end of the Cold War.
- As a result, France is exposed and its armed forces are fully committed, if not over-stretched. French forces are currently committed on 4 theaters. In response to the threat of jihadi organizations, Al Qaeda, Daech, and their affiliates, we lead the military effort to counter terrorism in Mali and help stabilize the country, and contribute to the security and stability of the entire Sahel region. We also participate in the US-led coalition in the Levant against ISIS. French forces are also heavily committed on our national territory, participating directly in the protection of the homeland, as the latest terrorist attack reminded everyone 3 weeks ago in Marseille. All that, I think, is well known by you.
Beyond these commitments, the Review clearly states that we must remain vigilant in 4 other regions of concern:
- The Balkans, that are still fragile;
- Sub-Saharan Africa, where structural weaknesses and on-going crises require preventive action;
- The Mediterranean Sea, where we see the convergence of both security issues such as migrations and terrorist activities, and defense issues, considering the return of traditional power politics and the concentration of military assets by non-Western countries in the Eastern Med Sea;
- Finally, Asia, where several arms races are taking place, involving in some cases nuclear weapons – even though this crucial region doesn’t have a security architecture commensurate with the current level of tensions.
The environment is more unstable and unpredictable. We observe a worrying tendency (Russia, China) to challenge and weaken international norms; our immediate environment is sometimes at stake; With State and non-State actors having an increasing access to advanced military resources, Western armed forces’ superiority will probably erode in most domains. We expect future operations to be more difficult and more costly.
To address the growing number of common challenges, France must have two objectives: to preserve her strategic autonomy, and to help build a stronger Europe and a stronger Alliance.
Preserving our strategic autonomy will require to renew both components of our nuclear deterrent; to devote appropriate efforts in terms of knowledge, anticipation, and intelligence and to retain a full-spectrum and balanced military.
In particular, French forces should be capable of autonomous action with respect to nuclear deterrence, the protection of the homeland and its approaches, as well as for intelligence, command and control, special operations and cyberspace.
New investment should focus on certain key capabilities and elements of readiness (intelligence, command and control, first and forced entry, combat, and combat support).
I want also to point out that retaining certain key capabilities, such as a nuclear deterrent and a full-spectrum military, provides France with the legitimacy and credibility that are critical to forge partnerships and uphold the responsibilities of a framework nation. With the same rationale, France must remain a major technological power with a solid defense industry and technology base.
Supporting defense innovation and harnessing innovation from the commercial sector will be a key in preserving our military superiority in the long run. It is one of my key priorities as Minister for the Armed Forces.
However, facing such a daunting set of present and future challenges, France cannot do everything alone. We would like to see European defense strengthened, based on the growing number of security interests we share with our European partners.
Accordingly, we support all ongoing EU and NATO tools and initiatives, such as the ones I mentioned earlier, provided they deliver actual results.
All this will require a buildup and a corresponding financial effort. I mentioned that we are on a path toward 2% in defense expenses. Next year already, France will raise its defense budget by over 1.8 billion euros in 2018. I know this is probably less than the Pentagon’s laundry bill; but in France this is a significant 5% increase.
And I would like to conclude with this: don’t underestimate those single-digit billions. From what I have seen in the Sahel and in the Levant, when you invest in the French military, you really get a bang for your buck!
Thank you for your attention.