Suez Reversed? The Entente Cordiale Rides Again

Britain and France could shape the geopolitics of Europe again.

British prime minister David Cameron’s visit to Paris last week wasn’t just an attempt on the French president’s part to show off his foreign policy credentials and bolster his reelection chances. The two countries affirmed a number of agreements which deepened defense cooperation between them and possibly set the tone for a new Atlantic order.

As the United States under President Barack Obama “pivot” to Asia, Europe’s two Atlantic powers, which, between them, account for nearly half of European defense spending in NATO, are stepping up their game. By the early 2020s, Britain and France aim to have the ability to deploy an integrated carrier strike group that incorporates naval assets from both nations.

Britain’s two Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers are supposed to have entered service by then. A second French carrier is in the works, based on the Queen Elizabeth configuration, although looming defense cuts could delay construction.

Last year, France and the United Kingdom agreed to establish a joint expeditionary force. These plans were affirmed last week. “A five year exercise framework is in place to achieve full operating capability in 2016,” said a statement that was released by both governments on Friday.

The need for Anglo-French defense cooperation in the absence of an American commitment to security in Europe was clearly on display in Libya last year where the two European powers led the effort for an intervention. Washington was reluctant because, as officials stated bluntly, the United States had no interests in Libya.

Still, the Europeans needed American military support, especially in the opening phases of what was named Operation Odyssey Dawn. When the expedition morphed into a months long campaign, the American defense secretary even complained of Europe’s defense ineptitude, pointing out that “only eleven weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country” many allies were “beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference.”

Britain and France on Friday recognized the intervention in Libya as a “defining moment — and one on which we will continue to build in the future.” In particular, they announced their intention to jointly develop an unmanned aerial vehicle program. Drones were instrumental in Libya and are used extensively by the American military over Afghanistan and Pakistan to bombard suspected terrorist sites. London and Paris seek a “sovereign capability” that will be shared by their armed forces.

If the two continue this process of integration, more than fifty years after the Suez crisis, when the United States urged Britain, France and Israel to suspend operations against Nasser’s Egypt and effectively undermined what prestige the two imperial powers had left, the entente cordiale could shape the geostrategic landscape of Europe anew.

Anglo-French interests extend beyond the Mediterranean — where Libya and Tunisia, if they elect secular and pro-Western governments, could prove instrumental in bringing about Nicolas Sarkozy’s hopes of Mediterranean Union — into French-speaking West Africa — where French troops intervened last year to decide the presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire — and the Gulf of Aden, where European maritime patrols defend oil tankers from Somali pirates.

The Americans wouldn’t mind being relieved of responsibility from all three areas so they can concentrate on the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific rim. Only if there’s a crisis, as was the case in Libya, would the United States come in with overwhelming force to help their allies.

All of this could change if François Hollande wins the presidency in May and decides that France should have nothing to do with Perfidious Albion after all. Little is known of the candidate’s foreign policy but whatever he decides, the two countries have little choice but to cooperate in military affairs or see their influence abroad erode further. Even a French socialist should be able to recognize as much.