During a scene in director Joe Wrights new Churchill biopic, Darkest Hour, the French premier and his assembled generals are visibly irritated by the Prime Ministers overconfidence and perceived ignorance upon hearing of the collapsing French lines. “Well he is English” they concur snidely.
The following article was contributed to the UK Defence Journal by Sam Flint.
Such are Anglo-French relations, imperfect and uneasy, but when the situation has seemed bleakest, we stand together as equals.
This unique relationship, unlike Britain’s deference to the U.S., comes as a result of a shared history. Adversaries for most of it, Britain and France have played a similar role on the edge of Europe, with distinct national characteristics, but a shared belief in democracy and liberty, and great resolve to protect it. This is what brought us together in the 20th century, particularly in the conflict Darkest Hour depicts, World War Two, where our shared faith in democracy was rallied in the attempted, but failed, defence of Europe.
The 21st century of course poses new challenges. A recalcitrant Russia interrupting elections and intimidating its neighbours, a belligerent North Korea, an Iran stuck at the crossroads between integration with the international community and regression into clerical repression, and crucially, a rising red dragon in the East.
China under Xi Jinping is becoming increasingly aggressive and authoritative, recognising its great wealth and strength in Asia. Despite its regional power status, with little infrastructure to project its influence much further, it’s developing navy and cyber warfare techniques make it one of the greatest threats to the world system as we know it. Only last year at the Communist party conference, Xi outlined how China would be the beacon for a new way of governing, challenging the liberal democratic order that was assumed to be the future of all nations after the end of the Cold War in 1991. This is an order that the Communist party does not subscribe to, and with its huge economy and influence, China aims to project its new ideology, at the expense of the West.
With an increasingly isolationist America embroiled in its own domestic issues, presenting a poor case for developing countries to strive toward democracy, what chance do nations like Britain or France have in the face of Chinese power?
Little, unless again we stand together. Britain and France are the military powers of Europe. We have by far and away the best standing armed forces, equipment, and economy to pay for them, and we are both crucially on the UN security council. Such resources when pooled together could pose a genuine force for intervention around the world, not just militarily, but with the power to invest in developing countries and make a case for democracy that the current leader of the free world, President Trump, will find difficult to make.
President Macrons recent visit to the UK promised just that. New joint ventures by the UK and France in Africa to provide investment in developing countries gives us a stake to advocate their movement to liberal systems of government. Prime Minister Theresa May offered French forces in Mali 3 Chinook helicopters in the fight against Islamic terrorists, and in return Mr. Macron has authorized hundreds of French soldiers to reinforce British troops in Estonia, a taskforce under British command, to head off the threat from Russia. This is off the back of rumours of a joint military rapid reaction force that could provide a deterrent to any aggressive postures in Europe.
Recent cuts in military expenditures has seen both the UK and France’s capabilities drop significantly. A mere glance at the Royal Navy demonstrates how savage these cuts have been, with Britain now operating below the safe number of sailors it requires, having to mothball at least 2 ships due to a lack of manpower.
Such stark figures however, prove the need for such an alliance. Pooling our resources, like we have in Mali, is a small step, but one that shows the effectiveness and perhaps even necessity for our armed forces to work together. Until cuts are reversed, it would greatly benefit both nations capabilities.
I must stress that I am not advocating a joint Anglo-French army. That I cannot emphasise enough. It would not be in the interest of either nation to rely on the other for defence. But in the face of mounting threats abroad, and the necessity for a democratic country to take an active role in combating the spread of authoritarian Chinese influence in the developing world, a new Entente Cordiale, as some journalists have put it, would benefit not only Britain and France, but the world.