Amidst U.S. Retreat, France Scrambles for Strategic Allies

Old colonial powers turn to one another to maintain security in central Africa.

osFrance’s role in Africa has changed in recent years.  To ensure that it is not perceived as – and does not conduct itself like – a neo-colonial power, its interventions in Africa have sought to accord with its own democratic values of respect for the rights of the people and for the rule of law, even in cases where this brings France into conflict with some African leaders who have become accustomed to a corrupt way of life.

In 1994, approximately one million people were slaughtered in the war crimes committed during the “Rwandan Genocide.” The shocking images of its atrocities increased recognition of responsibility in France and the West for preventing future humanitarian tragedies in Africa.

From a strategic perspective, any descent into chaos in Central Africa would also have consequences in North Africa, itself only a short distance from Europe’s southern shores. This is simply a modern-day application of the Eisenhower domino theory, without its counter arguments related to the occupation of countries by foreign forces: Today, local governments require time-limited Western military intervention to assist their own armed forces.

Combining a more enlightened role and modern strategic needs, Paris, thus currently favours brief UN-mandated military interventions to support African political solutions.  This is precisely the mission of France's Operation Sangaris: to bolster the efforts of local armies and the African Union's MISCA force in the CAR. However, due to severe financial constraints, France also needs Western and professional partners.

While the EU and the United States have been looked to for this role, inviting these two partners to join as the main contributors to peace-making in Central Africa may not be the most judicious choice. First, seeking military intervention from the EU outside of its borders strengthens its political status, and contributes to a corresponding decrease in the sovereignty of the various European nation-states by effectively ceding it new executive powers in an area that has hitherto been the preserve of the individual members.

Second, asking for financial and military assistance from the United States, the classic sponsor of such operations till 2008, fails to recognize what I have called the “US foreign policy Whirlfall” -- a whirlpool generated by the US retreat from global interventions, reinforced by the windfall that America’s global rivals are reaping from US-imposed policy limitations on its allies. At a time of global retrenchment, President Obama is unlikely to engage in a new military mission in Africa.

Since the Fashoda Incident in 1898, when France and Britain faced off over their respective territorial claims in East Africa, and the signing of the Franco-British Entente Cordiale in 1904, it is Britain that has traditionally been France's partner in Africa. With similar African histories, the two countries share the same democratic respect for the rule of law and human rights.  The British, too, understand that their role in Africa is to support the African people and governments, not to re-create a colonial empire.

The two countries already work closely in combating piracy and other maritime and coastal threats, and share human and electronic intelligence. But notwithstanding the British intelligence and logistical support provided for Operation Sangaris, the partnership has much greater potential, for Central Africa itself, as well as for the UK and France. Further, with its defense budget crippled, France has signaled its need for additional British involvement that would not only share the costs of the operation but also strengthen the operation's effectiveness on the ground.

The British Armed Forces’ (BAF) operational capacity would offer more than simply logistical support. Expanded Royal Air Force operational missions could be flown in coordination with the French Air Force, while the British Army ground forces could contribute a few regiments of land personnel, both in operational and training roles.

Moreover, beyond the purely military dimension, the British offer an additional area of expertise, one that is critical to strengthening the establishment of civil societies that France is seeking to advance in Central Africa. With its excellent BAF education facilities, many of them affiliated with UK universities, the British have the ability to provide high-quality educational courses to the African armed forces that are in dire need of training to achieve greater efficiency and autonomy. These centres could also provide British academic training to relevant members of the region's executive, legislative and judiciary branches, thereby sharing the financial burden of such training which France is now bearing alone. Such assistance would aid in the democratization process and support the regeneration of state institutions.

Britain's failure to devote additional resources to stabilizing Central Africa would also be harmful to its future position in the region. Without greater UK involvement, France would remain financially strapped and politically isolated and would have no alternative but to lobby for the creation of a European task force and the implementation of “EUFOR RCA Bangui” approved in January 2014.

Is the UK willing to relinquish its national interests in Africa and cede still more of its national sovereignty by promoting Brussels’ influence?  The alternative is to make some adjustments to the severe budget cuts the British armed forces are facing and allow the UK Ministry of Defense to provide the French with a short-term increase in operational assistance.

With Britain under budgetary pressure, spending 150 million pounds a year – the approximate financial cost for this increased assistance – in an obscure and remote military enterprise whose outcome is uncertain, might seem like an unnecessary expense that should be avoided. Nevertheless, such expenditure would represent less than half a percent of the MoD's annual budget.  As removed as Bangui may be from the British consciousness, it would be a small investment given the political, diplomatic, strategic and commercial dividends it will bring the UK in the years to come.  Dispatching a British brigade to the region would breathe new life into a partnership between two nations so famously committed to human dignity.  Surely this is reason enough for the UK to stand up and be counted.

Clearly, the main immediate beneficiaries would be the people of Central Africa who have suffered so much for so long. Assisting the French in Central Africa would represent a clear fulfillment on a humanitarian obligation.  Yet it would also keep France from becoming pushed into a corner in which it would be at the mercy of Brussels.  Finally, it would put London "on the map”, very close to what Winston Churchill described as the “Pearl of Africa”. British support for Sangaris is thus intrinsic to the UK's modern global ethos.

Fashoda is approximately a century and 1,500 kilometers away from Operation Sangaris’s arena. Should the UK be supporting the MISCA and the French?  “To be or not to be” – there really is no question.

Jérôme Vitenberg is an international political analyst. He has taught Political Science and International relations for the LSE via the University of London’s International Programmes at DEI College, Greece.

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