Some Brief Preliminary Comments on President Chirac’s

Recent Announcement on the Role of French Nuclear Weapons


by Dr Stelios Stavridis, Visiting Professor,

Department of European Studies and International Relations, Intercollege


Although it is not surprising that in Cyprus everyone appears to be rightly obsessed with the Cyprus Problem, in part because elsewhere nobody appears to really care, one should not forget other important international developments. What deserves particular attention for instance is the 19 January 2006 announcement[1] by France’s President Jacques Chirac that he would not discard the use of nuclear weapons not only if France was attacked, but also if it suffered terrorist attacks, especially those involving weapons of mass destruction, if its ‘vital energy interests’ were threatened, or if its allies suffered attacks.


The extension of the ‘sanctuarization’ dimension of French nuclear deterrence to other European states, in particular those of the European Union, is not new. Chirac’s announcement falls within years of worldwide thinking about and developments in nuclear deterrence following the end of the Cold War and the more recent September 2001 mega-terrorist attacks in the USA[2]. The French President has added two new categories for the possible use of French nuclear weapons: to secure energy supplies and to deter or to retaliate against states that support, actively or passively, international terrorism. Such an announcement represents a clear extension of the role of nuclear weapons in France’s security doctrine. Chirac also announced that such a re-definition of the role of nuclear weapons would require some changes in the types of nuclear weapons the French possess and will develop, mainly through more accurate and smaller weaponry. It confirms actual practice in fact. Chirac also mentioned for the first time the possibility of using nuclear weapons to prevent an attack on what the French President gives himself and his successors the right to define as ‘vital interests’, including as a last effort to protect them (‘le droit d’ utiliser un ultime avertissement pour marquer notre determination à protéger nos intérêts vitaux’).


However, he also insisted on the continued relevance of traditional nuclear deterrence, namely its non-use, as well as the need for nuclear weapons reductions, and the prevention of further proliferation, both dimensions within the Non-Proliferation Treaty provisions, meaning reductions in the more traditional nuclear panoply that was created to deter a Soviet conventional and nuclear attack.


Reactions were quick to follow, from support in the British government and the American administration, to condemnation in Germany, among several European media, and also including some US newspapers. For instance, The Boston Globe stressed that by making nuclear weapons more functional, all that Chirac had achieved was to give further ammunition to those in Iran and North Korea who claim that they need nuclear weapons to guarantee their own security[3]. A point made by many academic observers over the years. See for instance Dr Aldo Zammit Borda’s recent comments: ‘If the NWS [nuclear weapons states] continued to treat nuclear weapons as a security enhancer, there is the real danger that other States will start pondering whether such weapons would not be a security enhancer also for them’[4]. Similar reactions could be found in El País and Le Monde. In the Spanish daily’s editorial the Chirac announcement is described as ‘dangerous’, ‘extending enormously’ the range of possible use of nuclear weapons, and undermining the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)’s efforts. It goes on by criticizing this ‘banalization’ of nuclear weapons as both a sign of a ‘decadent’ Presidency and a gift to the current US Administration’ doctrinal preferences, especially on preventive action in international affairs.[5] Among other things, Laurent Zecchini of Le Monde stressed the risk inherent in his view in the Chirac announcement of turning strategic nuclear weapons into tactical arms, thus weakening de facto the very notion of nuclear deterrence[6].


It is not possible in this short contribution to address the rights and wrongs of Chirac’s announcement. What I would like to stress here is somehow different: Chirac has correctly reminded us of the need to address new – and old - global challenges. Be they international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, rogue or failed states, or abuses of human rights on a massive scale, the international community does not appear to be prepared to deal with them. The United Nations has shown time and time again its incapacity to respond when it was most needed (most recently in the Balkans, East Timor, Rwanda, Iraq, etc.). More worryingly, as Michael Walzer (an opponent to the 2003 Iraq war) has reminded us, ´[m]ost of the just uses of military force in the last thirty or forty years have not been authorized by the UN´.[7] There are serious problems of both efficacy and legitimacy.[8] Similarly, this new international agenda requires deep changes in the way the UN works. So far, there has been little real progress in that direction[9].


All of the above points must be serious food for serious thought. Without forgetting other pressing international problems, including the continuing division and occupation of Cyprus, we must seriously consider the implications of what President Chirac has announced. His timing was clearly meant to impact on the current debate over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, where as Félix Arteaga has noted[10], Paris seems to become conscious of the limits of its own diplomatic efforts within the EU-3 negotiating team with Iran[11]. But Chirac’s announcement obviously goes also beyond this extremely serious situation. The UN Security Council has now defined the proliferation of WMDs as a threat to world peace and international security. The stakes are high. The debate is only beginning.


[1] As reproduced in Le Monde, 19.01.06:

[2] For a general review see David Yost, ‘New approaches to deterrence in Britain, France and the United States’, International Affairs, Vol. 81, No.1, 2005, pp 83-114.

[3] The Boston Globe editorial: ‘A new Chirac doctrine’, as reproduced in The International Herald Tribune, 24.01.06

[4] Aldo Zammit Borda, The Iranian nuclear issue and EU3 negotiations, FORNET CFSP Forum Working Paper No.8, May 2005, p.14: The problem is further compounded by the NPT (Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty)’s own ‘inherent contradiction of seeking simultaneously to promote the use of nuclear energy and prevent proliferation [of nuclear weapons]’, Ibid., p12.

[5] ‘La bomba de Chirac’, El País, 20.01.06 (my own translation).

[6] Laurent Zecchini, ‘Jacques Chirac defend la pertinence de la dissuasion nucléaire’, Le Monde, 19.01.06: See also his ‘La guerre nucléaire “propre”?’ Le Monde, 02.03.06:, .

[7] Walzer, Michael (2003), ´The United States in the World – Just Wars and Just Societies: An Interview with Michael Walzer´, IMPRINTS - A Journal of Analytical Socialism, Online, Vol. 7, No.1:

[8] Both represent the basis of international order, as William Walker reminds us, p.78. See his Weapons of Mass Destruction and International Order, Adelphi Paper No. 370, International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, November 2004.

[9] See for instance the frustrating current debate about the reform of the UN Human Rights Commission, ‘The shame of the UN’, The New York Times Editorial as reproduced in the International Herald Tribune, 26.02.06:

[10] Félix Arteaga, La dissuasion nuclear francesa según el presidente Chirac: reforma, ruptura o recordatorio?, ARI No. 11/2006, Real Instituto Elcano de Estudios Internacionales y Estratégicos, Madrid, 27.01.06. For a general discussion about the impact of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction on international order, see Walker, 2004, op. cit.

[11] In addition to France, Britain and Germany are involved, with a supporting role from the EU’s CFSP (Javier Solana). For more details, see Zammit Borda, 2005, op.cit. On the Iranian nuclear issue see also Natalie Nougayrède, ‘L’escalade nucléaire de l’ Iran’, Le Monde, 07.03.06.

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