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.

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.