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The Concept of Autonomy in French Strategic Thought

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  • December 09, 2011
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Bharat Wariavwalla
    Discussants: Philippe Laurent, Nicolas Blarel, Krishnappa Venkatshamy and Lion Koenig

    This paper focuses on the concept of strategic autonomy as a defining element of the French strategic culture while demonstrating how throughout history France has shaped a bi-dimensional concept of autonomy. It emphasizes that the concept of strategic autonomy is key to gaining a deeper understanding of all underlying elements of France’s attitude as a contemporary global actor. By focusing on three specific historical periods spanning the last two centuries, the author examines the origins of the French definition of autonomy and goes on to highlight the main challenge of contemporary French strategy: to reconcile its limited material power with its global ambitions and its Universalist model. The author notes that the paper is the first stage of analysis of a larger comparative study between Indian and French strategic cultures.

    The paper argues that the French concept of autonomy, with its particularities, is the central ideational element of France’s strategy. It defines the way France perceives the world as well as itself. Though the concept of autonomy all by itself cannot entirely explain French foreign policy or predict France’s positions, the paper suggests that it gives meaning to France’s past and potentially helps anticipate the French perspective in future. In other words, even though the concept of autonomy doesn’t explain everything on its own, it remains significant as far as French strategic culture is concerned.

    The paper follows Johnson and Larsen’s definition of strategic culture. It argues that the overarching goal of the study of strategic cultures is to understand strategic behaviour at the global scale. This approach does not reject the idea that states try to achieve their interests rationally, but considers these interests as not only circumstantial and resulting from the distribution of resources and power in the world, but also influenced by norms and values and shaped in a certain ideational framework. The paper tries to find elements of consensus, values, and ideas which have defined French strategy for a certain period of time.

    In analysing the historical construction of France’s focus on the concept of autonomy, the paper focuses on three core historical episodes which it considers to have strong dialectic values:

    • The Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars give the philosophical foundation and theoretical base to the concept.
    • The French colonisation process under the Third Republic (1871-1939) illustrates the main paradox in this concept when put into practice.
    • The example of Gaullist policies during the Cold War enables the author to illustrate the greatest challenge of French foreign policy in the 21st century.

    The author prefers the term ‘autonomy’ over ‘independence’, although both are often used interchangeably, because of the semantic difference between the two: whereas the latter stresses on the negation of dependence, the former has a more affirmative nuance. Moreover, the French concept of autonomy implies a responsibility towards the world. Thus, in the context of France, the original concept of autonomy is active and strongly positive.

    The meaning French autonomy bears today is the result of a tension between two attitudes:

    • Firstly, protective autonomy or a defensive posture marked by fear of imperial expansionism that threatens France’s safety;
    • Secondly, active/affirmative autonomy or imperialist dreams based on France’s glorified past and the urge for spreading its values.

    As a kingdom and then as a nation-state, France has historically constructed itself in opposition to an empire as well as with the great memory of an empire, thus constantly oscillating between the two extremes like a pendulum. The French concept of autonomy is therefore essentially bi-dimensional, the active dimension historically emerging after the defensive element.

    The idea of French autonomy contains the paradox of French imperialism. The paper attempts to reconcile the French concept of autonomy with French imperialism by bringing in a Universalist dimension and suggesting that the French model can be viewed as a universal model, thus, the notion that what is good for the Frenchmen is good for everyone. Moreover, identity is a key element in the construction of a strategy according to the French bi-dimensional notion of autonomy. The paper argues that the defence of the national identity is singularly more prominent in the case of France. This is justified by the idea of French exceptionalism, a nationalist notion that France is granted with a unique role in world history and has the responsibility to offer a certain model to humanity.

    A specific facet of this responsibility and the memory of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars translate into a self-perceived notion of France as the ‘liberator of nations’. This perception of uniqueness, stressed by French historiographical frame which designated the French Revolution as the commencement of the Modern Times, is very close to American exceptionalism and the role it perceives for itself in the world. Although both consider themselves to be carriers of the heritage of the Enlightenment, the US notion is partially based on religious considerations whereas the French model is more political and is derived from the perceived grandeur of French history.

    In conclusion, the paper engages with France’s main challenges and attempts to answer the question: in the aftermath of the Second World War, how can France continue to exist as a global actor without the material capacities to compete with the greater powers? After the ‘war of twenty years’ that constituted the decolonisation process, France’s limited material capacities were well-admitted by the French government and the foreign policy was designed accordingly. French autonomy was preserved by framing an ambiguous geopolitical situation whereby independence from all powers would be constantly affirmed, but alliance with the Western bloc would be presupposed. France’s withdrawal from NATO’s command in 1959 and the Gaullist policy towards the US is a perfect example of this ambiguity. The strength of French foreign policy lies in the geopolitical ambivalence of the French position and not in its material capacities. The French concept of autonomy leads France to transform all technical and economic matters into political decisions (politicization) and refuses to see its foreign policy dictated by its limited material capacities.

    Discussion and Comments

    Mr. Laurent commented on the ability of the paper to successfully assess and summarise the diverse French character. The author received many suggestions for his bigger project of a comparative study. Mr. Blarel pointed out the need to look at a series of case studies and test alternative hypotheses. A suggestion was made to study different phases of colonisation and take into account factors other than strategic culture that marked the enterprise and examine different incarnations of French strategic culture based on different leaders and circumstances. The notion of French strategic culture was further problematised by questioning whether actions are governed by an overarching rhetoric or are they for domestic consumption.

    Gp Capt Venkatshamy pointed out the long historical period the paper is trying to engage with and suggested picking up a more specific issue and operationalizing it for a more focused argument. He further raised the issue of convergences and divergences between French and Indian strategic culture and noted a need for the paper to provide a well-fleshed out answer to the question: how are India and France comparable? Towards this end, he provided a specific pointer to attempt a comparative study between Nehru and De Gaulle.

    Mr. Koenig commented on the merit of the project to theorise an undertheorised concept and suggested some points in connection with paper structure and flow. He suggested disentangling the concept of strategic culture and first exploring the broader concepts of strategy and culture and explaining why they should be studied, before moving on to the study of strategic culture and examining whether the concept is tautological, oxymoronic or more than the sum of its parts. He commented on the singular voice/consensus used in the paper and suggested that ruptures in the concept be taken into account. He suggested a more elaborate analysis of the three core historical examples the paper deals with in order to capture a clearer genealogy of the concept.

    Mr. Blarel and Mr. Koenig jointly suggested that the paper should attempt to address the question of homogeneity of strategic culture: can we talk of ‘a’ French strategic culture?

    Discussion from the floor revolved around:

    • the question of continuity and ruptures in French Strategic culture after and before the colonial era;
    • the element of uniqueness in the French desire for autonomy, and,
    • suggestions to clearly define means and goals and frame strategic culture as the ideational base that leads to autonomy.

    The Chair concluded by keenly engaging with the cultural dimension of France’s distinct idea of civilization and its notion that it should give this idea to the colonised nations. He stressed on the impact of civilizations in the Indian context and commented on the importance of French thinking.

    Report prepared by Bhavna Tripathy, Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.