French President Nicolas Sarkozy has responded to critics of his decision to return France fully to NATO by downplaying the significance of the plan. But there is probably far more to the move than he is letting on.
Sarkozy has argued that France's full "reintegration" into the military command structure of the 26-member alliance, after an absence of more than 40 years, is little more than a formality, especially considering that France already works closely with NATO on many levels.
If in practical terms full French membership in NATO will have only a slight impact on the alliance in the immediate future, the symbolism of the move is nevertheless enormous: In what is arguably the most significant change in French foreign policy in nearly 50 years, Sarkozy is shifting his country's famously independent defense policy in a decidedly Atlanticist direction. By doing so, critics of the move say, he is sending the message that France is strategically aligned with the United States.
Pro-NATO skeptics, meanwhile, suspect that Sarkozy is hoping to increase French influence within the alliance in order to "Europeanize" it, while at the same time building an independent European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) -- a long-cherished ambition of many French elites. In other words, they say, France will now be perfectly placed to destroy the alliance from within.
Sarkozy's plan reverses a decision made by President Charles de Gaulle in 1966, when he withdrew France from the NATO's command structure in order to preserve France's strategic independence from the United States. Sarkozy says that that position, which has remained an article of faith for French elites of all political stripes for more than four decades, is now outdated.
In a hard-hitting speech at the École Militaire in Paris on March 11, Sarkozy argued that France's full return to NATO was long overdue, and dismissed as "lies" accusations from his political enemies that he was sacrificing French independence to the United States. "A nation alone is a nation with no influence," he said of France's self-imposed exile.
"We don't have a single military post of responsibility. We don't have our say when the Allies define the military objectives and means for the operations in which we participate," Sarkozy said. "In concluding this process, France will be stronger and more influential. Why? Because those who are absent are always wrong. Because France must co-direct, rather than submit."
Sarkozy argues that, given its current level of engagement (France is the alliance's fourth-largest contributor of funds and deployed troops), France must have a voice in the strategic decision-making in order to defend its own interests. Although France has gradually rejoined the political and operational elements of the alliance, its absence from the permanent military command structure means that it currently does not participate in the strategic planning that goes into operational deployments. Sarkozy says this must change.
But Sarkozy also has other motives for reaching out to NATO. For one thing, full membership in the alliance will enhance French military interoperability with the United States and other NATO allies, thereby contributing to the badly needed modernization of French forces. Moreover, Sarkozy hopes that full NATO membership will provide the French defense industry with access to the mammoth U.S. defense procurement market, which accounts for almost half of global defense expenditures.
Finally, Sarkozy is convinced that by fully rejoining NATO, he can eliminate suspicions among NATO allies about his motives for building an autonomous European defense capability. ESDP, which Sarkozy still maintains is an "absolute priority," has often been perceived as an effort to create a rival to NATO, and thus undermine American influence in Europe. Sarkozy knows that he especially needs to convince Britain of the genuineness of his pro-Atlanticist leanings. Britain, of course, is central to a credible European defense force, but up until now, it has resisted closer European defense cooperation because of its deep distrust of French motives.
Most observers, however, say that even without British opposition, a credible European defense capability remains a distant dream. European defense budgets are a problem, with most alliance members not even at NATO's recommended spending level of 2 percent of GDP. Lack of political will is another obstacle: France's decade-old plan for creating a deployable European force of 60,000, for example, has never come close to being realized. In this context, Sarkozy may have concluded that, for the foreseeable future at least, NATO offers the only serious structure to guarantee European security.
Sarkozy has won some important concessions from the United States, including a relaxation of opposition to ESDP, as a quid pro quo for France's rejoining NATO. The Americans have also given in to Sarkozy's demands for a more prominent French role in the alliance. France will reportedly take over leadership of Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, where the alliance's long-term strategy is formulated, and the Allied Joint Command Lisbon, responsible for NATO's Rapid Reaction Force and its satellite reconnaissance system.
But France's newfound influence in shaping NATO's strategic vision also has the potential to increase tensions within the alliance. French Defense Minister Hervé Morin has already declared that France rejects a global role for NATO and that the alliance should remain Eurocentric. He also argued that Russia should be consulted before the alliance expands any further. Those positions could put France on a collision course with Washington, which has wider plans for NATO, and has criticized France and Germany for their deference to Russia on questions of European security.
Meanwhile, NATO allies have managed to avoid the first major spat with Sarkozy by giving in to his demands for a more prominent seat in front of the television cameras for celebrations marking the alliance's 60th anniversary, which will be held on April 3-4. Sarkozy, who had threatened to boycott the event in case his demands were not met, is expected to use the occasion to officially announce France's full return to the alliance.