French Leadership in Non-Proliferation and Disarmament

MGIMO graduate, United Nations intern, RIAC Expert
November 16, 2020

France has the third largest nuclear arsenal, with an estimated 300 nuclear warheads. Given its strategic position in the field of non-proliferation and arms control, France has taken essential steps towards the process of disarmament to work toward international peace. For instance, it has dismantled its ground-to-ground nuclear missiles and reduced by a third the number of its nuclear warheads. In addition, it adheres to the principle of adequacy, which intends to keep the nuclear arsenal at the lowest possible level based on the strategic context. Thus, France is “resolutely committed in favor of nuclear disarmament”. The Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs even highlights France’s “exemplarity” regarding nuclear disarmament.

However, while promoting the process of disarmament, France has also been improving its nuclear arsenal to continue working on deterrence. President E. Macron announced France’s willingness to invest 37 billion euros in the coming years to modernize its arsenal to the detriment of conventional forces. By working on those different fronts, France is trying to find the right balance between deterrence and non-proliferation as well as between national interests and international commitments. If we consider the fact that France places nuclear weapons at the heart of its defense strategy, has it been able to find that balance and consolidate its political discourse?

Even though it is possible to compliment France on its past efforts towards non-proliferation, some argue that new international circumstances require France to adjust its policy in the field. Given the growing instability and the fact that France pays particular attention to changing strategic contexts, it is worth taking a look at France’s stances on major treaties to observe some of the ongoing dynamics.

French stance on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Process

The preservation of the NPT is essential for the French disarmament and non-proliferation policy, as it considers the NPT to be a “cornerstone for collective security system”. To preserve the interests of the international community, France has been actively involved in the preparations of the NPT Review Process in order to introduce more concrete measures based on rising threats. Indeed, France has been approaching the upcoming Review Process while considering the question of how risk evolves over time, putting an emphasis on the North Korean crisis and Iran. Perhaps, France’s efforts to support the NPT Review Process attempt to get away from the idea that treaties tend to be rigid and ineffective at regulating behaviors.

More specifically, France has been supporting the idea of engaging in more dynamic discussions between the P5, in order to ensure the “good health” of the treaty. From a French perspective, this form of cooperation “goes beyond the traditional interpretation of nuclear risk reduction”. Despite the disagreements between the P5 and an expected difficult Review Conference, France is convinced that the P5 process will be useful in bringing productive dialogue between nuclear weapon states in the long-run. Overall, when it comes to the NPT Review Conference, France has remained loyal to its international commitments and has actively worked towards the consolidation of its political discourse in the field of non-proliferation.

French stance on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)

However, from the perspective of some countries, some treaties are not compatible with the current state of affairs and the rapid change of technology, as we have observed that France, Russia are moving forward with the modernization of their nuclear arsenals. As noted previously, France relies on the principle of deterrence and is not willing to get rid of its nuclear arsenal. This was reflected in France’s refusal to sign the TPNW. The French government believes that “the TPNW is unsuited to the international security context, which is marked by renewed threats of the use of force, Russian military rearmament, regional tensions and proliferation crises”. For France, the treaty undermines the gradual approach to disarmament, which is not helpful in serving the cause of disarmament. 

Nuclear powers remain attached to their commitments under the NPT. The United States has called this treaty a “strategic error” and France recalls that “the international situation permits no weakness”. But, since the treaty changes the status of nuclear weapons under international law, France might be required to rethink its strategic defense policy. For now, it intends to focus on the negotiations relating to the treaty banning the production of fissile material for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, which will be brought forward by France in the P5 process.

French stance on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty

Soon after the withdrawal of the United States from the INF Treaty in 2019, French officials stated that they regret that no durable solutions were found to keep the treaty in force, despite their efforts to influence the fate of the treaty. In fact, for France the end of this agreement increases the risks of instability within Europe and weakens the international system when it comes to the regulation of armaments. As a result, France has seeked multilateral dialogue with the countries of the European Union, as President Macron believes that Europe must be actively involved in the development of a new agreement that could replace the INF. It is worth reminding that the INF Treaty “arose out of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ambitious political project to build a Common European Home”, which places Europe at the center of a new major multilateral agreement that would go much beyond the previous bilateral agreement between Russia and the United States. Macron stated that “we cannot leave our security into the hands of a bilateral treaty to which no European country would be part of”. Thus, France intends to recreate the security conditions guaranteed by the INF treaty by using its leadership in the Union and hoping on the fact that major European countries will be receptive to this project. 

France’s Dual Strategy

Finally, the international political context has been evolving but France’s determination to continue working towards non-proliferation and disarmament has not. As France considers to have special duties as a nuclear state, it keeps the same course of action in its approach to disarmament as strongly believes that deterrence will guarantee its security. Most importantly, French officials believe in a gradual work toward non-proliferation.

However, some experts have highlighted a level of ambiguity in the French rhetoric in light, for instance, of the INF Treaty. For them, the ambiguity might be the result of a potential “new path of opposition with NATO” and France’s desire to occupy an even more prominent place within the European Union. In addition, others have remained skeptical concerning the sharp increase in budget going towards France’s nuclear arsenal. It is believed that such a move is contrary to the traditional doctrine that aims to put a halt to the arms race. Instead, such an approach continues to be based on the belief that nuclear weapons are effective weapons, adapted to the security challenges of the modern world.

Thus, we observe that France has maintained a course of action that preserves, above all, its national interests. But as France intends to occupy the leadership role within the European Union, it is still trying to find the right formula between deterrence and non-proliferation goals.