Conscription in France, Romania plans a submarine and US troops in South Korea prepare a new look.
The reintroduction of national service is a common fantasy among men just past the age at which they might be required to perform it. Emmanuel Macron – aged 40 – intends to follow through on his campaign promise to revive conscription. France rolled back conscription between 1996 and 2001 – Macron is the first president of France not to have served. His vision is unclear: he has spoken of a period of three to six months for French citizens aged between 18 and 21, with a choice of military or civic service. At least one government spokesperson has said it will be universal. Meanwhile, armed forces minister Florence Parly said it would probably not be compulsory.
“Macron definitely sees national service as an important institution for social integration,” says Dorit Geva, associate professor of sociology at the Central European University and author of Conscription, Family, and the Modern State. “He has a sense that this is something missing in France. There is renewed interest in conscription – Sweden has reintroduced it, Norway introduced women into it. A quiet rearmament is happening in continental Europe.”
Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research and a former assistant to the director of strategic affairs at France’s Ministry of Defence, believes that the Macronist national service will not quite be conscription as France once understood it. “Until the end of the Cold War, national service was a military function – the social-cohesion benefits were a bonus,” he says. “This will be about ensuring that the spirit of the republic is something young people buy into. There will be a military dimension but it’s not about turning people into soldiers.”
Earlier this year Romanian defence minister Mihai Fifor announced plans to build the country’s first submarine, 20 years after its last underwater vessel became non-operational. But he has since walked back on building plans and focused instead on the purchase of three subs. The potential additions to the country’s Black Sea fleet come at a time of perceived Russian threat in the region. Marian Zulean, a University of Bucharest professor who has worked for Romania’s Ministry of Defence says, “Nato cannot defend you unless you want to defend yourself.”
US troops in South Korea will soon be sporting a more casual look. Until recently grooming standards required soldiers to stay clean-shaven at all times in the country to keep in line with the cultural norms of the population. But the rules have been relaxed in recent weeks, with off-duty soldiers now allowed to sport facial fuzz. The shift came down from the army’s new commander in South Korea, Lieutenant General Michael Bills, with a spokesperson stating that cultural changes in the country have led to increased acceptance of western appearances.
Johnny Mercer is a UK Conservative politician, member of Parliament’s Defence Select Committee and former soldier. His book We Were Warriors is a memoir of his time spent on three tours of Afghanistan. He recently attended the 2018 Munich Security Conference as a Global Young Leader.
You attended the Munich Security Conference. What did you learn there?
The headlines were depressingly focused on how complex and dangerous the world is at the moment. It is clear that a new world order is emerging after the Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria model, with a resurgent Russia reminding many delegates of the Cold War.
Theresa May spoke at the conference and proposed a security treaty between the UK and EU. Do you support this?
Anything that is going to make sharing intelligence, strategic direction and defence responsibilities easier is good news. I can’t envisage a scenario in which we would not share aspects of security and defence because of a political ideology.
Can the UK remain a global force once it’s left the EU?
Britain needs to reset its relationship with her military. Years of underinvestment and bad planning have weakened us in the eyes of our allies. People expect us to play a leading role in world affairs but that will not last forever – and that window of opportunity is closing.
There is increasing talk of a closer EU defence union. Can this exist alongside Nato?
I have reservations about it. US and UK taxpayers are becoming increasingly fatigued by the idea of paying more for defence in an alliance such as Nato when allies do not do the same.