March 8, 2006
The French WayBy J.R. Dunn
'This is worse than a crime... it's a blunder.' (Talleyrand, on Napoleon's execution of the Duke d'Enghien)
The French have always gone their own way in international relations.
Back in the days of the early Louis, the French, annoyed by several Italian republics, made an alliance with the Ottoman Turks for the purpose of cutting Genoa and Venice down to size. The Italians found themselves expelled from Istanbul, their goods and money seized, while the late medieval equivalent of most favored nation status was transferred to France. This at a time when it was a touch—and—go thing whether or not large swathes of Central Europe were going to wind up as part of the Caliphate.
Jump forward five centuries and we find France being menaced by a later, sinister eastern power, the USSR. The rest of Western Europe, similarly at risk, had put its faith in the NATO alliance. Not the French. France takes a backseat to nobody, and since the alliance was led by United States, France had opted out several years before, throwing the alliance into a state of disarray that required several years to sort out.
The French had their own plans for handling the Soviets: send a breeder reactor and associated technicians to China to teach the Chinese how to manufacture plutonium. The idea was that with a nuclear—armed China at its rear, the USSR would have little attention to spare for Europe.
The ploy was a great success. So successful that it nearly triggered World War III when in 1970 a Soviet official approached Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, and offered to cut the U.S. in on a nuclear strike designed to wipe out the reactor, the plutonium stores, and any weapons the Chinese had put together. Kissinger said absolutely nothing in response, and immediately thereafter kicked off the round of contacts with the Chinese government that became legendary as 'ping—pong' diplomacy and culminated in Richard M. Nixon's trip to Peking.
That's how France handles foreign relations. It's not for nothing that names like Richelieu and Talleyrand have become synonymous for slick practice in diplomacy.
It's within that tradition that the recent announcement by French president Jacques Chirac concerning nuclear weapons must be viewed. Speaking in January to a gathering of senior military officers, Chirac said,
Reactions have understandably been mixed. Some observers have criticized France for in effect legitimizing Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. Others have reacted with approval, on the grounds that the French are at last waking up to the threat of terror and taking their stand alongside the rest of the Western world.
Both responses are overblown. Iran has given no sign of requiring any form of excuse for its nuclear yearnings. The ayatollahs have made it clear that they want nuclear weapons so that they can blow people up in larger numbers than previously — deterrence and other Western concepts have nothing to do with it. Similarly, if Chirac's remarks have any bearing on the Western campaign against terror, more recent French diplomatic moves — e.g., their de facto recognition of the Hamas government — would seem to seriously contradict them.
The French don't look at nuclear weapons the way other nations do — as menaces or threats. As with everything else, the French view them as tools of diplomacy, items with which to make points, to compel action, to punish. Other nuclear powers may let the weapons speak for themselves, aware that they need not underline anything more than the fact that they exist and are ready for use. Not the French. France lives by the reverse of Clausewitz's famous dictum, in that diplomacy is war carried on by other means.
And war, as the ancient Gallic phrase tells us, is one of two things in which all is fair.
What France is saying is that she intends, as she has done for the past forty years, to go it alone. She is telling potential nuclear terrorists to go hit somebody else, and telling the terror—fighting Coalition to expect no assistance from the home of Liberte. Israel can be eradicated, Manhattan can be flattened... as long as La Belle France is left alone, she will return the favor.
Of course, there may be a lot else involved. With France there usually is. They may know something about Iran no one else knows. But there's no point in waiting for an explanation. After their deal with the Sultan, the French did not explain themselves to anyone else in Europe. Not the pope, not the emperor, not the Hapsburgs. After handing nuclear weaponry to the Chinese, France failed to consult with their former NATO allies, Washington, or even the UN.
It may well be the same here — we may not know the full story for decades to come. But I think we know enough.
France has been getting away with this kind of thing for a long time. (At times, she's has gotten away with even worse: at one point in the 1960s, France had nuclear—armed missiles aimed at both the United States and the USSR, in order to 'fulfill our responsibilities as a neutral', according to the commanding general.)
How long she can continue getting away with it is another story. France is no longer a great power. She is, in many ways, the nation most vulnerable to terrorism, with Muslims comprising 5—10% of the total population. Many of them are jobless young men, at loose ends and easy prey for fanatical preachers. The French have made no effort to integrate these people, instead relegating them to Le Corbu—style ghettoes surrounding the major cities. It is a situation ripe for an explosion, and the shock—waves have already started, as the recent car—burning spree makes perfectly clear.
France may well be fighting for its existence in no time at all, in a kind of warfare in which nuclear weapons and diplomacy will be of no help whatsoever. At that time, she will have to make the choice between political aloofness and national suicide. Until then, nothing much should be expected from France.
Among many other things, J.R. Dunn was the editor of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.