New political leaders do not invent new national strategies. Rather, they adapt enduring national strategies to the moment. On Tuesday, Francois Hollande will be inaugurated as France's president, and soon after taking the oath of office, he will visit German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. At this moment, the talks are expected to be about austerity and the European Union, but the underlying issue remains constant: France's struggle for a dominant role in European affairs at a time of German ascendance.
Two events shaped modern French strategy. The first, of course, was the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the emergence of Britain as the world's dominant naval power and Europe's leading imperial power. This did not eliminate French naval or imperial power, but it profoundly constrained it. France could not afford to challenge Britain any more and had to find a basis for accommodation, ending several centuries of hostility if not distrust.
The second moment came in 1871 when the Prussians defeated France and presided over the unification of German states. After its defeat, France had to accept not only a loss of territory to Germany but also the presence of a substantial, united power on its eastern frontier. From that moment, France's strategic problem was the existence of a unified Germany.
France had substantial military capabilities, perhaps matching and even exceeding that of Germany. However, France's strategy for dealing with Germany was to build a structure of alliances against Germany. First, it allied with Britain, less for its land capabilities than for the fact that Britain's navy could blockade Germany and therefore deter it from going to war. The second ally was Russia, the sheer size of which could threaten Germany with a two-front war if one began. Between its relationships with Britain and Russia, France felt it had dealt with its strategic problem.
This was not altogether correct. The combination of forces facing Germany convinced Berlin that it had to strike first, eliminating one enemy so that it would not be faced with a two-front war. In both the first and second world wars, Germany attempted to eliminate France first. In World War I it came close, France saving itself only at the Second Battle of the Marne. The Germans surprised the French and perhaps even themselves by withstanding the Russians, the French and the British in a two-front war. With the weakening of Russia, Germany had new units available to throw at the French. The intervention of the United States changed the balance of the war and perhaps saved France.
In World War II, the same configuration of forces was in place and the same decisions were made. This time there was no miracle on the Marne, and France was defeated and occupied. It again was saved by an Anglo-American force that invaded and liberated France, effectively bringing to power the man who, in one of those rare instances in history, actually defined French strategy.
Charles de Gaulle recognized that France was incapable of competing with the United States and the Soviet Union on the global stage. At the same time, he wanted France to retain its ability to act independently of the two major powers if necessary. Part of the motivation was nationalism. Part of it was a distrust of the Americans. The foundation of post-war American and European defense policy was the containment of the Soviet Union. The strategy was predicated on the assumption that, in the event of a Soviet invasion, European forces supported by Americans would hold the Soviets while the United States rushed reinforcements to Europe. As a last resort, the United States had guaranteed that it would use nuclear weapons to block the Soviets.