Sarkozy’s Three-Way NATO Bet

PARIS – France’s return to NATO’s integrated military structure after a 43-year absence last year brought to an end one of the exceptions françaises. It also helped frame the growing debate over whether to develop European defense more effectively or to seriously reform the Atlantic alliance.

At first glance, it may seem that France chose NATO at the expense of the ten-year-old European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP). But that interpretation takes too pessimistic a view of ESDP’s achievements over the past decade, and is based on a flawed understanding of the relationships between NATO and the European Union.

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Indeed, France’s return to NATO is far from a U-turn that reflects disenchantment with ESDP. Rather, it is the product of a 15-year process of rapprochement with NATO – and of the real progress being achieved in European defense.

France ’s re-integration into NATO is, in fact, the final stage in a process that has seen the French military play an increasingly important role in the alliance’s operations. France has been aligning itself with the military structures of a NATO that has progressively abandoned the practices that were at the root of General Charles de Gaulle’s decision to quit, most notably the placement of all NATO forces under a single command, even in times of peace.

Sarkozy’s NATO policy is thus more of a follow-up on decisions and developments in the 1990’s than a radical U-turn from the policies of his predecessors. Where Sarkozy does distinguish himself is in adopting a more openly pro-Atlantic stance.

Beyond the often partisan and quintessentially French polemics about Sarkozy’s NATO decision, it is possible to discern what might best be termed a three-way wager by the French president. The first concerns building European defense in harmony with NATO, rather than in opposition to it. Ending the exception française in NATO has removed the suspicion that French support for developing European defense was really aimed at competing with the alliance or weakening it.

Whether this suspicion had any truth or not, the message for many allies is clear: the developments the French want for ESDP are compatible with its full and complete membership of NATO. American support for the European Union’s efforts to play a greater role in defense and security – a stance apparent since 2007 and confirmed by the arrival of the Obama administration – consolidates this approach.

The second part of Sarkozy’s wager concerns reforming and renewing the alliance. France’s full engagement will increase the pace of reform in NATO and make the alliance a tool better adapted to twenty-first-century crises by paring down its cumbersome bureaucracy. France could not become an active player in this debate without being part of the alliance. Following the appointment of French officers to a number of key NATO posts, France can, along with the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and a few other NATO allies, begin to implement much-needed reforms.

The last and perhaps most difficult part of the wager is “Europeanizing” the alliance. France can help to give NATO more balance by spreading political and military responsibilities more evenly among Europeans and Americans. Now that the right political conditions exist in the United States, it is up to Europeans to make the political decisions on budgets and resources that will enable them to strengthen their role in NATO.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the three parts of this wager will pay off. The forces of inertia are always strong, and when it comes to resources the current economic crisis favors neither ambitious reforms of the alliance nor serious intensification of ESDP. It will be a few years yet before we can determine whether these ambitions have borne fruit.

The most serious criticism of France’s return to the alliance has been that it places the European defense project at risk, or at least endangers the ambitious vision of the EU as a leading strategic player. If that were the case, Sarkozy’s decision, regardless of the advantages to NATO or France, would clearly be open to question.

If France had returned fully to NATO’s military structures 10 or 15 years ago, before ESDP existed, this would indeed be a serious and well-founded objection. But the fact that the EU has become a politico-military player since 1998 has radically changed the stakes. In just a few years, the Union built a framework for managing civilian and military crises, however imperfect or incomplete these tools may still be.

The EU has since 2003 begun to assert itself operationally as well, carrying out 23 ESDP missions, six of which have been significant military operations. It has engaged in the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan, as well as South-East Asia with its Aceh peacekeeping mission, and more recently in the Caucasus and in the Indian Ocean.

These operations have varied widely in scale, ranging from a few dozen observers, police officers, or civilian advisors to several thousand soldiers. Although they have mostly been on land, operation “Atlanta” off the coast of Somalia saw the EU’s first naval operation. All were launched autonomously, relying either on national command arrangements or on making the most of command arrangements with NATO known as Berlin-plus.

In these circumstances, France’s full involvement in NATO, far from burying the European project, looks like a vital tool for furthering it. Sarkozy's decision has put France in a position to gain influence in the alliance and increase the pace of NATO’s reform, while at the same time strengthening the ESDP.