France and the United States: Drawing the Distinction Between Alignment and Solidarity

 There has been so much acrimony in the trans-Atlantic debate in the past days-in particular since France refused to agree to NATO planning for the defense of Turkey-that an observer from an outer planet would hardly believe that the French-U.

 There has been so much acrimony in the trans-Atlantic debate in the past days-in particular since France refused to agree to NATO planning for the defense of Turkey-that an observer from an outer planet would hardly believe that the French-U.S. alliance is the oldest functioning military pact in the world. Once again, there is a need for an explanation.  

French observers have been surprised at the virulence of some of the attacks emanating from the American media, calling into question the moral standards of France as a nation. Many of these attacks have been unnecessarily vicious, much more than the so-called "bursts of anti-Americanism" that frequently erupt in France (and which usually target U.S. policy, not the United States as a country). But some just left us speechless. A good example is the recent New-York Post cover page with a photograph of an American military cemetery in France, referring to the "forgotten sacrifice" of GIs in Normandy. On this side of the Atlantic, such headlines just astonished us.

Is this just one more trans-Atlantic misunderstanding? The past few months provided a great deal of fodder with, for instance, public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic believing that the other's policies about Iraq are determined by oil interests (which, in this analyst's opinion, is true neither in the case of the United States nor France). But the current crisis about the possible role of NATO in a war against Iraq is serious, because it involves the crux of any military alliance: solidarity in times of need.  NATO's primary raison d'être, as suggested by Nikolas Gvosdev last week, is "to provide security for its members."   (  

However, I must disagree with his bleak assessment about the "damage done" to NATO's cohesion by the French (as well as German and Belgian) stance. No country in the Alliance is currently under attack. From the French point of view, allowing NATO to take action in preparation for a military strike against Iraq, in particular to beef up the defense of Turkey, would have shown the world that Paris considered that war was now inevitable. It would have signalled the final defeat of the last attempts to avoid a military conflict. (This has no impact, by the way, on the measures suggested by the United States, such as the deployment of air defense systems to Turkey, which could have been undertaken on a bilateral basis.)  In fact, there was the feeling in Paris that Washington, by asking a collective decision, wanted to force NATO to show support for its imminent military operation.

The compromise reached earlier this week is a second-best solution, since it involves only the 18 members of the integrated military structure, leaving France as the odd country out.

But while opposing NATO planning for a possible war in Iraq, French authorities have also reaffirmed the obvious: if there was a war and Turkey was attacked, Paris would honor its engagement to assist Ankara by all possible means. France's commitment to defend its allies when they are attacked is not at issue. Despite (or perhaps because of) its withdrawal from the integrated military structure of NATO, France has always been one of the staunchest supporters of the commitment to allied solidarity under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. To respond to Gvosdev's query: Yes, the Article 4 and 5 guarantees really  are worth the parchment on which they are written.  Clear proof of such support was given in September 2001, when France declared itself ready to give military assistance to the United States in the fight against Al-Qaeda in the name of collective defense.  Paris was more than happy to participate in Operation Enduring Freedom. Let us also remember that during the Cold War, France showed complete and immediate solidarity with its allies each and every time our common freedoms were militarily threatened, like for instance during the Berlin or Cuba crises. (Many in the United States also seem unaware of the fact that France is also the biggest European contributor to NATO operations in the Balkans.)  

What is baffling us, in the broader debate about Iraq, what we perceive as confusion on the American side of the Atlantic between solidarity and alignment. We make a clear difference between the two.  Since when does being an ally imply following U.S. positions on each and every account? In French eyes, Iraq does not represent a clear and present danger to the West. The despicable regime of Saddam Hussein is being contained, and in France's view the potential risks of war today outweigh its possible benefits. Of course, if clear evidence is given of obvious Iraqi breaches of its commitments, Paris will be ready to take all necessary measures to enforce them (including probably by contributing troops to an operation against Baghdad). But it would be up to Mr. Blix-not Mr. Bush-to say that Iraq has failed to abide by UN Resolution 1441.