Will NATO’s Prodigal Son Return?

PARIS -- Few state visits have lasting results. Nicolas Sarkozy’s just completed trip to Washington may be an exception, because the French President may be preparing to bring NATO a highly valued present for its 60th anniversary in the spring of 2009: France’s return to NATO’s integrated military structure, from which Charles de Gaulle withdrew in 1966.

In retrospect, de Gaulle’s decision proved to be much more detrimental for France than for the Alliance. By withdrawing from NATO’s integrated military command, France excluded itself from political decision-making within the Alliance and thus became the equivalent of the “Harkis”– the local soldiers who served with the French army during the Algerian war: fine soldiers, but with virtually no reward for their service.

How realistic is the possibility of scenario French return to NATO’s military fold? Historically, aborted moves and faux pas abound on both sides in the French/NATO relationship, the latest being Jacques Chirac’s failed attempt to patch up France’s relations with NATO upon his arrival in power in 1995. Success is not guaranteed this time, either, but the chances are much higher now, because France, the United States, and the world have changed.

For starters, the US now has a real friend and ally in the Élysée Palace. To speak of Sarkozy as a substitute for Tony Blair in Europe would be premature – and unhelpful, given Blair’s inability to exert significant influence on US policy. But Sarkozy is both eager to transform France’s relations with the Alliance and has a strategy to do so. Moreover, the French army supports such a move, while only a small segment of the Foreign Ministry is opposed.