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What is national defence and security? IHEDN's vocation

How can we define this fundamental concept that the IHEDN is tasked with studying? Lieutenant General Benoît Durieux proposes to draw its perimeter using four concentric circles.
IHEDN - Périmètre de la défense

Decree 2009-752 of 23 June 2009 on the IHEDN states that the Institute "is responsible for develop a spirit of defence and raise awareness of international issues". But what does the "national defence", which gives its name to the Institute and thespirit of defence"Who is its driving force? From the founding texts drawn up when the Ve In the Republic, the constitutional, legislative and regulatory corpus has evolved without making it possible to give an indisputable definition today.


The gradual establishment of a national defence culture in France

The capitulation of Sedan on 2 September 1870 marked the end of the Second Empire and led to the proclamation of the Republic. This event highlighted the link with national defence, which gave its name to the eponymous government of 4 September 1870. The concept came of age with the decree of 4 April 1906, which created France's first Conseil supérieur de la défense nationale, followed in 1932 by the advent of the first Ministry of National Defence, and in 1936 by the Collège des hautes études de la défense nationale (CHEDN), the forerunner of the IHEDN. The 1938 law on the organisation of the nation in wartime, drafted by Charles de Gaulle, continued this process.

The constitution of the Ve République gave new importance to national defence by assigning responsibility for it to the Prime Minister. The first White Paper on National Defence, published in 1972, is commonly identified as the document that laid down the principles of France's defence policy. In particular, it states that "national defence, while essentially manifested by the existence of armed forces, is based on many other realities, including demographic, economic, social and cultural factors". After the fall of the USSR, the 1994 White Paper was the only one to give any significant place to the issues of economic security and public opinion. 

The 2008 White Paper on Defence and National Security 

The 2008 White Paper on Defence and National Security introduced the concept of national security, which aims to ".respond to risks and threats that could affect the life of the nation. ". Our legal texts and our declaratory strategy bear the mark of an intense ferment, without making it possible to rule on a clear definition of concepts. The Defence Code states in its Article L1111-1 : "The purpose of the national security strategy is to identify all the threats and risks likely to affect the life of the nation. [...] All public policies contribute to national security. ". The concept of national security is therefore the most encompassing, in particular because it refers to both risks and threats. This distinguishes it from national defence, which is more restricted and, according to the code, concerns the response to threats alone: "The purpose of defence policy is to ensure territorial integrity and the protection of the population against armed aggression. It shall contribute to the fight against other threats to national security.

It is true that, over time, particularly because for several decades the Ministry of the Armed Forces was called the Ministry of Defence, the term defence had been reduced in discourse to its military dimension alone. However, this usage is not consistent with the constitutional responsibilities of the Prime Minister, which, as we have seen, are much broader. It is therefore in this broad, inter-ministerial sense that the term "defence" in the IHEDN's name should be understood.


The missions entrusted to the IHEDN can thus be represented through four concentric circles defined not in terms of the responsibilities of the various State bodies, which often overlap, but in terms of the challenges to be met. These four circles refer to different challenges.

®IHEDN - les 4 cercles de la défense nationale

Military defence

The first circle corresponds to the notion of military defence and involves the use of armed force. It distinguishes between war and peace, a distinction that remains fundamental. The use or threatened use of physical violence, not against a criminal, but to deal with a politically motivated armed threat, makes military defence unique. However, military defence cannot be the sole responsibility of the armed forces. It also involves the necessary support of the public; moreover, confrontation with a State will also lead to threats other than military ones being carried out. The purpose of national defence is to broaden the spectrum of threats envisaged.

National defence

The second circle adds to military defence everything that affects our sovereignty, our interests and our freedoms without recourse to armed force. This second circle, that of national defence, falls within the remit of the hostile and politically motivated intentions actors. Threats are distinct from risk, which is the mere possibility of a harmful event. They can affect the stability of our international environment (destabilisation, exploitation of migratory flows, damage to our reputation), the cohesion of the nation (disinformation, subversion, interference) and our economy (acquisition of stakes in sensitive companies, extraterritorial standards, espionage, etc.).

National security

The third circle corresponds to the notion of national security, encompassing not only national defence but also the management of crises serious enough to affect our society, our institutions or our powerful interests. These crises are not politically motivated, but nonetheless affect the organisation of the State or its political system, infrastructures or critical enterprises (OIV). The main sectors likely to be affected by these risks are: the health of the population; our vitally important infrastructures; the supply flows of our economy, particularly for essential resources; the environment; our cultural heritage; and our financial system. They may be affected either by disasters (pandemics, natural or technological disasters) or by social phenomena that are not themselves triggered by a hostile political will, but which by their scale undermine the health of our population (drug trafficking), the transparency of financial flows (organised crime), our supplies by sea (piracy), our economy (financial crisis) or the cohesion of our society (geopolitical instability, for example when it generates migratory flows).

International security

Finally, protection against these threats to national defence and security cannot be guaranteed without action to promote international security, whether through bilateral or multilateral diplomacy, arms control or the promotion of collective security mechanisms. It is in line with the mechanisms mentioned in the context of national defence.

The creation in 2021 by the IHEDN of a single national session comprising five majors responds to the need to provide food for thought on national defence, while remaining aware of the specific issues linked to military defence and national and international security.