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The Five Great Powers Lay Out Their Defense Strategies


A French soldier talks with a civil society leader in Gao
A French soldier talks with a radio station owner during a meeting between French military and local leaders in Gao, Mali, in February 2013, during the ouster of Islamist jihadis in the north of the country. JOE PENNEY

KANDY, Sri Lanka — The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, all nuclear weapon armed states — usually signal their defense policies through official documents such as white papers and/or nuclear posture reviews. Since three members — Britain, France and the US — are also in NATO, a strategic policy review of the military pact is also relevant. Although the information provided is as opaque as the members’ military budgets, commentators help the general public to decipher the facts as far as possible.

In April, France and China each published white papers that have stirred international interest, while an unofficial report from the European perspective, put out by four distinguished retired statesmen, Desmond Browne (former British Parliament member), Wolfgang Ischinger (German diplomat), Igor Ivanov (former Russian foreign minister) and Sam Nunn (ex-US senator), provides a welcome independent reassessment of the world’s overall position of weapons defense.

Sadly, while the official white papers promise more of the same, it is the unofficial European document that points the way to a qualitative change in this arena.

The policies of China after the assumption of the new leadership of President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang are of special interest. A recent border incident between India and China appears to have been resolved, although its roots remain murky. The choice of India for the first foreign visit by the new Chinese president is also encouraging. At the same time, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, of which I am a governing board member, revealed in its annual report that China has become the fifth-largest arms exporter, displacing Britain in that spot. Chinese arms exports rose 162 percent from 2008 to 2012, and in military expenditure, although far below the US, China ranks second worldwide.

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The Chinese policy paper, titled “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces,” issued by the State Council, seeks to situate the country in the modern context while emphasizing its defensive character. Basic principles are laid down at the beginning: “China opposes any form of hegemonism or power politics, and does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. China will never seek hegemony or behave in a hegemonic manner, nor will it engage in military expansion. China advocates a new security concept featuring mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination, and pursues comprehensive security, common security and cooperative security.”

The role of the Chinese military in economic development, international disaster rescue and relief efforts as well as joint exercises and training with other countries are outlined. The report is not a comprehensive policy paper but a description of the role envisaged for the Chinese military in the immediate future and intended to allay fears about an aggressive and expansionist China.

The French white paper — “Le Livre Blanc” — written by a group at the direction of Prime Minister François Hollande, contains few differences from the 2008 paper of the former prime minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. Setting the strategic policy for the next 15 years, the paper asserts that nuclear forces are “the ultimate guarantee of our sovereignty.” Along with protection and intervention, “dissuasion” is identified as one of the three priorities of French defense strategic thinking. Responding to the economic woes affecting Europe, however, military expenditure is capped at current levels. A reported 24,000 jobs will be cut, bringing the defense budget to 1.5 percent of gross domestic product. Intelligence and cybersecurity are given priority. French intervention in Libya and its continuing operations in Mali indicate that France will still engage in foreign military operations where it sees its national interest involved.

France is perhaps the most conservative nuclear weapon state of the five permanent Security Council members, and the white paper is particularly silent on the possibility of the country joining multilateral nuclear disarmament efforts. This is not surprising and has led one critic to say that France’s defense will consist of nuclear weapons plus the gendarmes. After France’s humiliation by Nazi Germany in World War II, the nuclear weapon has become the sole guarantee of French national survival and thus an article of faith in French defense policy.

Building Mutual Security in the Euro-Atlantic Region” is the independent report of the four retired officials from Britain, Germany, Russia and the US, representing, in order, the European Leadership Network; the Munich Security Conference; the Russian International Affairs Council; and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Their reassessments of the European-Atlantic security situation amid the monetary crisis in the euro zone and the shift of power to the Asian-Pacific rim and other contemporary developments are frank: “The blunt truth is that the security policies in the Euro-Atlantic region remain largely on Cold War autopilot: large strategic forces are ready to be launched in minutes; thousands of tactical nuclear weapons remain in Europe; a decades-old missile defence debate remains stuck in neutral and new security challenges associated with prompt strike forces, cybersecurity and space remain contentious and inadequately addressed.”

Questioning the rationale for huge military budgets when other priorities in their own countries and the world in general demand attention, the report calls for a new dialogue mandated by political leaders to address all defense issues in a fully “integrated way,” moving to mutual security in the European-Atlantic region, with specific steps and phases. The recommendations include a set of core principles to guide the dialogue and the establishment of a new European-Atlantic Security Forum to carry out the steps and continue the discussion.

All security policies must recognize that world military expenditure totaled $1.75 trillion in 2012, a fall of 0.5 percent in real terms since 2011. But spending cuts in rich Western countries, especially with the withdrawal of the US and other NATO powers from Afghanistan in 2014, should not be offset by the newly emerging economies of the global South engaging in arms races or the global powers rushing into new military interventions such as in Syria. There are still many lessons to be learned from the mistakes of the past before the great powers realize that weapon-based security is no substitute for a common and cooperative security based on political arrangements.

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This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Jayantha Dhanapala is a former United Nations under secretary-general for disarmament affairs (1998-2003) and a former ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United States (1995-7) and the UN in Geneva (1984-87).

Dhanapala is currently the 11th president of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs; vice chairman of the governing board of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and member of several other advisory boards of international bodies.

As a Sri Lankan diplomat, Dhanapala worked in London, Beijing, Washington D.C., New Delhi and Geneva and represented Sri Lanka at many international conferences, including chairing the historic nonproliferation treaty review and extension conference of 1995. He was director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research from 1987-92.

Dhanapala has received many international awards and honorary doctorates, has published five books and several articles in international journals and lectured widely. He speaks Sinhala, English, Chinese and French. He is married and has a daughter and a son.

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