I Say NATO, You Say No NATO

I Say NATO, You Say No NATO

Mini Teaser: Will France call the whole thing off?

by Author(s): Marcel H. Van Herpen

"NATO NOSTRA." NATO is ours. That could be the new motto of President Sarkozy. For him, NATO is no longer something "alien," "Anglo-Saxon" or "American" as it was for his predecessors. On the contrary. "That Atlantic Alliance," he told his ambassadors in August 2007, "it must be remembered, is ours: we founded it, we are today one of the principal contributors to it."

For many in Washington, such statements are music to the ears. When the former French president Jacques Chirac left office in May 2007, some people in the White House and on Capitol Hill breathed private sighs of relief. Chirac had become one of the main obstacles to the normalization of the Franco-American relationship, even if this was not openly admitted. Did the incoming French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, not have the nickname "Sarko l'Américain"? The question, however, is whether Sarkozy's admiration for America will result in a real and enduring change in French foreign policy vis-à-vis the United States-and in turn reinvigorate the transatlantic relationship. The proof of Sarkozy's transatlantic engagement, for many, will be if he keeps his promise to reintegrate France into the military organization of NATO, which France left after a decision by Charles de Gaulle in 1966.1

There is a clear "pro-return to NATO" lobby in France. Among these voices are first those of the French military, frustrated by the fact that French self-isolation within NATO hampers the modernization and interoperability of the French army with the armies of its allies.2 A second group of voices is the industrial lobby that hopes that French armaments sales will be boosted after France's return to the military organization. Last but not least, there is a political lobby, not only in Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), but also in the opposition Socialist Party, which believes France has a lot to gain by returning to its old position in the Atlantic Alliance. Some members of this lobby include, for instance, André Rouvière, a socialist senator and defense specialist; Pierre Lellouche, a UMP deputy and former president of the NATO parliamentary assembly; and Jean François-Poncet, a UMP senator who was a foreign minister under President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. The last two men belong to Sarkozy's inner circle.

There is a feeling on both sides of the Atlantic that this is the right moment for rapprochement. But times have changed. Both France and the United States have good reasons to reassess the utility of NATO to their foreign-policy objectives. Through their experiences of relative powerlessness-France during the Balkan wars and the United States in attempting to cope with Iraq and Afghanistan-both countries have rediscovered NATO as an important and useful instrument of their security policies. The United States is moving away from the haughty "toolbox" approach it developed after Kosovo. The French are giving up their self-imposed isolationism, which caused their army to lag behind the United States and the UK.

But do we have actual common ground? It is interesting how Sarkozy used the word "ours" when referring to NATO-it refers both to France and to the EU. For him the meanings are interchangeable. The message is clear: France should reappropriate its own organization. Reintegrating France into the military organization of NATO is not a humiliating walk to Canossa, rather, on the contrary, it is a glorious homecoming. This is, of course, only true if such a return does not imply an acceptance of the existing status quo, in which the United States is the unchallenged leader of the organization and can unilaterally set the agenda.

Therefore, Sarkozy's second point is that NATO has to change. Since its formation in 1949, NATO has formally been an organization of equal, autonomous members, but has had a quite-different informal structure. Informally, the organization is like a cobweb, with the United States, the large spider in the middle, maintaining bilateral contacts with the individual allies located at the different ends of the web.

President Sarkozy, however, seems in the short run to be less interested in setting up a European pillar in NATO than in directly strengthening the national, French position in NATO. In a July 19, 2007 French Senate report on the alliance's evolution, there was the first hint of the new French government's aims. In order "to rebalance the Atlantic Alliance in favor of the Europeans," the authors wrote, one should consider "the possibility of ‘Europeanizing' the position of deputy SACEUR [supreme allied commander Europe], currently held by Britain, by rotating it among the various European countries." One could question the use here of the word "Europeanize," because the position, in a certain sense, has already been "Europeanized." Since 1978, when General Gerd Schmueckle became the first German deputy SACEUR, the command has rotated between Britain and Germany. The defense committee's proposal to attribute the function "alternately to different European countries" should not be read as France being prepared to accept a Lithuanian, Danish or Czech deputy SACEUR. French intentions became clearer in October 2007, when Laurent Zecchini wrote in Le Monde:

One suspects that Paris will claim the position of deputy SACEUR, but no official request has yet been made. NATO diplomats think that the French initiative is, at this stage, a kind of trial balloon to test the reactions in the Atlantic Alliance, as well as at home.

In fact, French designs have not changed much since the beginning of the 1960s, when de Gaulle proposed a Franco-British-American triumvirate in NATO. The only significant change is that the leading group it wants to join now includes a fourth member, namely Germany.

Third, in Sarkozy's view, NATO should concentrate itself on its most traditional calling, which is essentially a military one. The fact that NATO has taken on more and more "soft power" roles is regarded by France as undermining the essence of NATO, which was created as an organization of collective defense. The French vision is that crisis management is more a role for the UN and for the EU. France is skeptical about the new "global approach"-a mix of civil and military operations-that has been on the American agenda since NATO established its Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, which combine providing military security with civil reconstruction and institution building.

Finally, according to Sarkozy, NATO's main purpose should remain what always has been its raison d'être: the security of Europe (and North America). This does not mean that France is opposed to "out of area" operations conducted outside the territory of the Atlantic Alliance, but that these interventions outside NATO territory should be directly or indirectly relevant for the security interests of Europe, in areas such as combating terrorist threats or safeguarding energy supply lines. This position also has an impact on the membership structure and eventual partnerships of NATO. According to Sarkozy, NATO should restrict its membership to the existing North American and European allies. After the recent enlargements of NATO, France is reluctant to take in new countries, such as Georgia and Ukraine, which have, again according to the French, no vocation to become members of the European Union. NATO membership should coincide as much as possible with EU membership in order to use NATO as an instrument for the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP).3

France's resistance to further enlargements of NATO into the former-Soviet space, however, is not shared by many other EU members-not by the UK and Denmark, and certainly not by Poland, the main supporter of Ukraine's bid for NATO membership. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, considered by Sarkozy to be his most important ally, was until recently taking a neutral stance on this question. In a foreign-policy speech in April 2006 she said only that "there can be no automatic accession." But in March 2008, speaking to military leaders in Berlin, she moved closer to the French position when she openly turned against U.S. proposals to let Ukraine and Georgia receive NATO membership action plans at the April 2008 Bucharest NATO summit.

To keep his plans to reintegrate France into NATO-and promote NATO's further "Europeanization"-Sarkozy wants to relaunch the ESDP when France holds the EU presidency. A central role will be played by a European-defense white book, for which he hopes the French-defense white book that will be ready this spring will be the model. The European-defense white book should be an important boost for the ESDP at the EU Summit of December 2008-also the tenth anniversary of the Franco-British European-defense initiative of Saint-Malo. By launching this new European-defense initiative, Sarkozy will seek to silence any criticism inside France when he attempts to reintegrate France into the military structure of NATO at the alliance's sixtieth-anniversary summit in April 2009.


BUT THERE is a problem. If we compare the French vision of NATO with that of the U.S. administration (not only the Bush administration, but equally either a Democratic administration under Obama or Clinton or a Republican one under McCain), then the differences immediately become apparent. In many respects, the U.S. strategy is the opposite of the strategy proposed by France. The United States wants to make NATO into a global security organization.4

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