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 :

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