September 20, 2016

Going to Zero: A Sceptical French Position

Nuclear Abolition: Neither Desirable, Nor Feasible … At Least For Now

Many believe that we should now seek the abolition of nuclear weapons. Three different motivations are put forward, yet none of them proves entirely persuasive.

The first motivation for disarmament is a perceived increased risk of nuclear proliferation. However, two decades of arms reductions have left nonaligned countries unimpressed, new nuclearcapable countries unaffected, and potential proliferators undaunted.

The second motivation is the longstanding idea that nuclear weapon-States have a legal responsibility enshrined in Article VI of the ‘NonProliferation Treaty’ (NPT), to get rid of their nuclear arsenals. A careful reading of both the Treaty and of its negotiating record leads one to conclude that the legal obligations are defined in a much more complex and subtle manner  however. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) also gave an advisory opinion on this issue in 1996, but, in addition to the fact that it was not legally binding, the Court refrained from stating that this obligation existed separately from the broader obligation of Article VI.

The third motivational tenant is the alleged existence of alternatives to nuclear weapons, such as modern conventional weaponry and missile defence. Conventional weapons do not however, have the same capabilities as nuclear weapons. They are unable to credibly put hardened targets at risk. Only nuclear weapons can threaten to destroy any State as an organized entity in a matter of minutes. A long and sustained conventional bombing campaign could perhaps achieve the same result, but this would allow the adversary to adapt and adjust; thus why conventional strategic city bombing has rarely been efficient on its own. Any massive bombing campaign would catalyse intense political pressure on the government of the acting party – especially as casualties grow. It would also leave time for the adversary to resort to nonconventional tactics such as terrorism. Finally, the scary and terrifying nature of nuclear weapons awards them power. As witnessed once again by the world’s reaction to the Fukushima accident, there is something irrational about the public perception of all things nuclear, which lies at the root of nuclear deterrence.

It is very difficult to explain the absence of any major-power war since 1945 – a true historical anomaly – without acknowledging the role of nuclear weapons. Alternative explanations are not satisfying.

Missile defence is an interesting complement to nuclear deterrence. But it cannot threaten an adversary with unacceptable damage. And to rely exclusively on missile defence for the protection of vital interests would open the door to a costly arms race. For these reasons missile defence is no substitute for nuclear deterrence.

Such thoughts inform French strategic culture regarding the continued need for nuclear deterrence.

French Rationales for Maintaining Nuclear Weapons

While undoubtedly a major political dimension existed in France’s original decision to develop a nuclear force, security concerns were paramount. Today it is mostly security rational that explains France’s policy to maintain nuclear weapons in the post Cold War environment. The French still believe that there is value in maintaining nuclear deterrence for security reasons. Two rationales are put forward. The first one refers to what the French often term the “life insurance” function of nuclear deterrence. The world can change rapidly, and the emergence of a new major threat to Europe within the next 15-30 years is not a far-fetched scenario. Accordingly, it is deemed prudent to maintain a national nuclear deterrent. The logic maintains, even in the absence of such a major threat today, as France already has a nuclear capability, it may as well retain it, if the cost of doing so remains bearable.

Even in today’s financial context, President Hollande has made it clear that France would not give up its deterrent, which amounts to about 0.2% of GDP. Despite France’s traditionally good relations with Moscow and Beijing, the idea that one of these two countries could one day pose a major threat to Europe is far from being dismissed in French political circles. Russia is traditionally first on the list of major powers that could potentially be a threat to Europe, but China now appears to come second. The build-up of nuclear arsenals in Asia is deemed a matter of concern for Europe. Paris worries about a future scenario where Beijing seeks to deter European involvement in a crisis in Asia by exerting a nuclear threat.

The second security rationale is to guarantee that no regional power could blackmail or pressure France with weapons of mass destruction. Among potential threats to French vital interests, nuclear and ballistic proliferation in the greater Middle East is a topic of particular attention. The kind of scenario that has French officials worried is one where, for instance, a country tries to block military intervention by threatening to strike the national territory. This concept could be called ‘counter-deterrence’ or ‘counter-blackmail’. No specific countries of concern are identified in French discourse; however, Iran is now regularly mentioned in official foreign and security policy speeches.

At its origin France’s nuclear programme was partly driven by global status reasons. Today this rationale has disappeared. No link is made in France between the country’s possession of nuclear weapons and its status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for instance. The French consider that they have special responsibilities stemming from this status, which they exert via voluntary financial contributions to UN organisations, as well as significant military contributions to UN-mandated operations. Paris actively supports opening the UNSC to new permanent members.

The possession of nuclear weapons however, is still connected with French foreign policy at large. The underlying idea that nuclear weapons make you free and independent is very much present in the national strategic culture. The country’s nuclear status seems to be a constant, ever-present in the backs of the minds of French Presidents. One may even wonder: would France have taken the stance it took in early 2003 – actively opposing war in Iraq to the point of threatening to veto the passing of a UNSC resolution – had it not been an independent nuclear power, not dependant on the United States for guaranteeing its security?

France has a fairly traditional approach to the overall concept of deterrence. Few contemporary heads of State of nuclear-endowed countries would devote an entire speech to nuclear deterrence matters as Chirac and Sarkozy did (the former in 2001 and 2006, the latter in 2008). The words ‘nuclear’ and ‘deterrence’ are still very much associated with each other, within the nation’s strategic culture. There is a traditional defiance vis-à-vis missile defence, for strategic and budgetary reasons. The French defence of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) until 2001, was partly motivated by the fear that its demise would prompt Russia to bolster its defences, and thus undermine the French deterrent; or at least force Paris to increase efforts to maintain its credibility. However, since 2001 Paris has shown an increasing pragmatism in this domain, and now considers missile defence as a complement to nuclear deterrence.

The French nuclear deterrent covers only ‘vital interests’. The core of these vital interests includes the integrity of the national territory (the mainland as well as overseas departments and territories), the free exercise of national sovereignty, and the protection of the French population. An attack on France’s vital interests would bring on a nuclear response in the form of ‘unacceptable damage’, regardless of the nature of the threat, the identity of the State concerned, or the means employed. The current French doctrine is to deter a country essentially through the threat of destroying its political, economic and military centres of power. Also included is the option aimed at restoring deterrence, to threaten an adversary who may have misjudged French resolve or miscalculated the limits of French vital interests with a limited strike or ‘nuclear warning’. French military authorities have let it be known in 2006 that a high altitude electromagnetic pulse strike could be an option to that effect.

French authorities regularly reaffirm that their nuclear forces are solely for deterrence and do not have any war-fighting role. Since 2008, policy refers to “extreme circumstances of self-defence”. The use of this expression, taken straight from the language of the July 1996 ICJ Advisory Opinion, carries a subtle message. Even though France is reluctant to consider itself legally bound by political commitments made in the context of the NPT (or by negative security assurances), Paris is keen to show that it has not broadened the role of its nuclear deterrent.

France considers that its nuclear policy is consistent with its international legal obligations, including Article VI of the NPT. It maintains its force at a level of ‘sufficiency’ (a French expression broadly equivalent to ‘minimum deterrent’). However, the French have also adopted a very strict interpretation of Article VI. France is keen to emphasize the multidimensional character of Article VI, including the goals of cessation of the arms race and of general and complete disarmament. It considers that its actions in favour of biological, chemical and conventional disarmament are part of its Article VI record – as is its assistance to nuclear threat reduction in Russia.

Could France Ever Abandon Nuclear Weapons?

Given the importance of nuclear weapons for France, the abandonment of nuclear deterrence by Paris is an extreme hypothesis. What could be the extraordinary circumstances under which France could give up this capability? Three different scenarios need to be envisioned:

Abolition by Example
Abolition by example is hardly a credible scenario. A British decision to give up its own deterrent, for instance, would not be enough: the exemplary effect that could be expected would be in all likelihood compensated by the realization that France would then be the sole nuclear power in Europe – probably giving it a sense of responsibility, as well as a new status on the continent. An American decision to renounce nuclear weapons would be different, but France would still claim it is the forces of its adversaries that matter, not those of its allies.

A Unilateral Decision to Disarm
A unilateral decision by Paris to disarm is hardly credible either. A consistent feature of the French nuclear stance is the insistence on the need to retain nuclear weapons as long as other States can exert a major military threat against France. Various French leaders have made this point clear upon several occasions.

Nevertheless, circumstances in which major potential threats to the security of France could disappear can be imagined. A prerequisite would be a fully democratic Russia, firmly entrenched in the Western camp in terms of fundamental values and  policies. As the biggest nuclear power in Europe’s neighbourhood, it is a salient feature of France’s strategic environment.

A second condition would be the convincing rolling-back of nuclear proliferation, especially in the
Middle East. The development of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles in the same region
would also need to have ceased. This does not mean all major threats would disappear, only that
the cost/benefit calculus of maintaining a nuclear deterrent would be drastically changed to the point that it would be difficult for a French government to fund and prepare the next generation of nuclear forces, especially in an era of structural budgetary constraints.

Paradoxically, the continued possession by the United States of a nuclear deterrent might help a French decision to go to zero. The U.S. extended deterrent to Europe would remain a last line of defence in case of a sudden and dramatic reversal of the strategic environment. In other words, paradoxically, a French decision to forego its nuclear arsenal may be impossible if the United States was to disarm unilaterally.

A U.S.-led Global Initiative to Go to Zero
France’s participation in a coordinated move toward zero would still be another extreme scenario.
However, it is possible to imagine the conditions under which Paris would willingly participate in
such a move.

The fear of a major proliferation wave in the European neighbourhood would not be enough for Paris to consider abolition. The French reaction would rather be based on the idiom; “better a bird in hand than two in the bush”. The safer bet would be to maintain nuclear deterrence than participating in a global abolition exercise; for if the possibility of a world with 30 nuclear powers was serious, then the political conditions for global abolition would hardly be present.

For France to go along with a U.S.-led initiative for nuclear abolition, there would need to be a dramatic change in the international environment for the better. Alternatively, a scenario where nuclear use has taken place and triggers a general trend towards general disarmament would also be a possibility. The coming into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) would probably be needed. Nuclear proliferation would have to be demonstrably and verifiably stopped, and all nuclear-capable States would need to be ready to participate in a global move towards zero.

There would also need to be very significant progress towards non-nuclear stability and disarmament. This would require fully implementing and maintaining such instruments as the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). A limitation of ballistic missile proliferation would also need to be ensured. A NATO missile defence architecture, which effectively shielded Europe from any significant missile attack (whatever the payload such missiles would carry), may also be needed as an insurance policy. A democratic evolution in Russia, better relations between Moscow and its immediate neighbours, as well as the political stabilization of the greater Middle East region – from Morocco to Pakistan – would certainly be needed to help France consider a move toward zero.

A “Great Powers” Initiative to Go to Zero
A variant of the previous scenario might alter the perspective. While Paris would find it easy to resist a U.S.-only initiative, it would be much more difficult politically to do so if both Russia and China took part in it. Beijing’s participation would be seen as critical, because it would then imply a very strong pressure on New-Delhi, and thus on Islamabad, to give up nuclear weapons. (Pressure on Pakistan would work directly but also indirectly, since China would probably use its full weight to obtain Islamabad’s cooperation).

In such a dramatic scenario, there would in all likelihood be strong pressures from within the European Union for France to follow suit. Assuming the United Kingdom was ready to play along, there would then be very strong pressure from key countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden, where public opinion for nuclear deterrence has never been very strong. Only some eastern European countries such as Poland and the Baltic States might resist such pressure, given their traditional fear of Russia. This could lead them, in the absence of a U.S. nuclear guarantee, to view U.K. and French forces with increased sympathy. Given France’s willingness to continue to be one of the key political actors in Europe, such pressure would be very hard to resist. Before giving its arsenal, Paris would certainly attempt to secure its existence for several years, waiting for concrete disarmament steps by the major nuclear players – notably the United States and Russia, given the size of their arsenals – and for proof that verification measures would be efficient.

Thus the only credible circumstance, in which France would be seriously willing to consider a global abolition of nuclear weapons, would be where there is no foreseeable major threat against
its vital interests, and those of its European partners.



  • DR. BRUNO TERTRAIS is a Senior Research Fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS). He graduated from the Institut d’études politiques de Paris in 1984. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Law (1985) and a Doctorate in Political Science (1994). His past positions include: Director, Civilian Affairs Committee, NATO Assembly (1990-1993); European affairs desk officer, Ministry of Defense (1993- 1995); Visiting Fellow, the Rand Corporation (1995-1996); Special Assistant to the Director of Strategic Affairs, Ministry of Defense (1996-2001). He is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a member of the editorial board of the Washington Quarterly.
Rob van Riet

About Rob van Riet

Rob van Riet is Coordinator of the Disarmament Programme at the World Future Council. In addition, he has been U.K. Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (PNND) since 2011 and has served as the Director of the Nuclear Abolition Forum since its founding in 2011. He was a co-author of the InterParliamentary Union/PNND Parliamentary Handbook Supporting Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, released during the 127th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Quebec City, Canada, in October 2012.