The French Way of War (on the Rocks)


In 2015, Michael Shurkin, an expert on French strategic issues and a War on the Rocks contributor, wrote an excellent article for Politico called “The French Way of War.” Contrary to received wisdom, he wrote, the French military has an impressive track record of doing a lot with a little:

They specialize in carefully apportioned and usually small but lethal operations, often behind the scenes; they can go bigger if they have help from the U.S. and other allies — which they will probably have in any case and know how to put to good use.

As it turns out, Shurkin’s description of the French way of war applies pretty well to War on the Rocks. We’re a small company with fewer resources — and a far smaller staff — than most other media organizations. But we punch above our weight, thanks to a lot of hard work behind the scenes and, crucially, the help of our allies — the experts whose commentary is the bedrock of what we do, the many subject-matter experts who generously review submissions for us, and, of course, our readers, without whom we wouldn’t be here at all.

So, it feels fitting that starting next week, I’ll be representing War on the Rocks in Paris for a full month, to get acquainted with the French national security community and study French strategic culture. While there, I’ll continue my normal duties of running the War on the Rocks editorial process — soliciting and reviewing submissions, working closely with authors to shape and edit their pieces, and so forth. But I’ll also be meeting smart folks in Paris working on European security and foreign policy, steeping myself in contemporary foreign policy debates in France and Europe, and, of course, recording interviews for my forthcoming podcast on nuclear history. This is an exciting opportunity to gain some specialist knowledge about an important part of the world, help sharp writers across the pond connect with the War on the Rocks tribe, and fact-check both halves of Charles de Gaulle’s statement that France is ungovernable because it has 246 kinds of cheese.

My home base for the month will be IRSEM, which is essentially the in-house think tank of France’s École Militaire. I’ll be embedded with IRSEM as a visiting fellow of sorts. Working out of this amazing organization might be the part of the trip I’m looking forward to the most, given the heavy-hitting experts within the institute as well as their deep institutional knowledge and extensive connections. I’d like to express my sincere gratitude in advance to everyone at IRSEM who made it possible for me to spend the month with them, especially Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, the institute’s director.

This trip comes at an exciting time, and not just because it’s the best time of year to go to Paris. France’s young president is poised to lead Europe into a new era, prompting fresh thinking about the relationship between national sovereignty and European integration, as well as about the role of European defense cooperation in promoting regional and global security. Meanwhile, the unpredictability of the Trump era has forced many on both sides of the pond to ask tough questions about the transatlantic relationship.

And it’s not just about U.S.-Europe relations. As I learned from working with Jim Goldgeier on this fantastic long-form essay, it’s impossible to understand U.S. foreign policy, the rise of China, U.S.-Russia relations, or any other major security issue without first understanding the changing role of Europe. I hope to return to Washington having deepened both my own expertise and, more importantly, my relationships with experts who can help our readers understand everything from the real deal with the Permanent Structured Cooperation to the increasingly important European perspectives on the Iran deal to just why everyone was so down at the Munich Security Conference.

As the managing editor of War on the Rocks, I learn every day from our experts. That’s why this is my dream job — I get paid to learn from the sharpest scholars and practitioners shaping the international conversation about security and strategy. This trip is an opportunity to take that a step further — to get out into the field to interact with the experts where they are, and hear about what they’re thinking and who they’re talking to before they put pen to paper to submit to War on the Rocks. I’m looking forward to meeting many of our experts in person for the first time, as well as bringing some new ones on board to showcase their fresh perspectives.

War on the Rocks readers and contributors, if you’ll be in France between April 10 and May 10, or know someone who will, I’d love to be in touch. You can email me anytime:

Some analysts have suggested that Macron’s France is caught between continued cooperation with its friends and casting out on its own. We at War on the Rocks feel no such tension: The people who have supported us from the beginning and who continue to do so are the reason we’re able to remain an independent voice doing the work that matters to us. This trip will deepen our connections with our friends in France, while also giving us additional resources to remain an indispensable platform shaping debates about French, European, transatlantic, and global security in the years to come. Thanks as always for being part of our mission, and see you in Paris!


Usha Sahay is the managing editor of War on the Rocks.

Image: Hervé BRY/Flickr