A France Fully in NATO

Posted in NATO | 24-Sep-07 | Author: Phillip E. Cornell

Phillip E. Cornell is WSN Editor NATO.

In 1966 when Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO’s integrated military command, his aim was to pursue a defence policy independent of a military alliance supposedly in the Anglo-Saxon grip of London and Washington. However over the past 40 years, it is hard to argue that France has benefited from maintaining an exceptional distance from NATO. So it should come as little surprise that Nicolas Sarkozy, having loosened the Gaullist political straightjacket which plagued the foreign and defence policies of so many predecessors, is now moving with characteristic gusto to reverse one of France’s most historic acts of pouting. But what is the calculus behind the move, and how would the expected outcome affect the Alliance?

Speaking on September 14, French Defence Minister Herve Morin lamented the lack of influence imposed on France by its non-participation at critical NATO meetings such as the Defence Planning Group and Nuclear Planning Group. While the DPG might not otherwise be such an important forum, particularly since France is fully engaged in almost all other mechanisms for joint operational planning and execution, in practice issues that are blocked by Paris but generally accepted by the other members can be sent there to circumvent French opposition. So to some degree, France would gain more of a say over strategic and political planning decisions, and close a loophole that some think has been exploited in the past.

In the end though, it is hard to argue that the practical implications of France’s full integration into NATO structures will be terribly profound. In that sense, Mitterand and Chirac’s partial reintegrations in the mid-1990s were far more significant. Reinstating French officers into NATO military commands and participating in joint exercises were key functional elements which eventually allowed France to take command of NATO missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. And in any case, formal reintegration will not take place before NATO’s summit in Bucharest next April. Where then is the rub?

Morin’s comments, in conjunction with a foreign policy speech by Sarkozy in August, are part of a wider political message to both Allies and potential adversaries.

It is no secret that Russian and Iranian agents have long seen France as a soft spot in Allied diplomatic unity. This was the case over sanctions against Tehran, where since the 1980s France played the best European cop in a classic good-cop/bad-cop transatlantic strategy (strategy being a deliberately generous term). In the Balkans France since the early 1990s was instrumental in limiting the use of force, and was suspected during the Kosovo campaign of leaking classified information to the Serbians. With regard to Moscow, France has been a key voice in Europe to stay relatively quiet over Chechnya, and to respond to Russia’s growing assertiveness by promoting “interdependence rather than confrontation”.

Seeking full cooperation with NATO, like the recent blunt warnings by the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner about possible military action in Iran, is meant to signal a new tack in Paris’ foreign policy. The purpose is to help shed France’s reputation among some allies that it is necessarily prickly and uncooperative, and also to warn more confrontational nations that it will stand firmly with its partners.

But while the message seems relatively straight-forward, the wider intentions may not be. The European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) is something of a French pet-project, but since its inception in 1999 it has been plagued with suspicions of serving to undermine NATO through duplication and competition. Those suspicions were reinforced by Jacque Chirac’s tendencies to vaunt a “multi-polar world” and otherwise seek to publicly undermine American hegemony, of which NATO was (perhaps undeservedly) still a symbol.

By so symbolically investing totally in NATO, Sarkozy is at the same time easing the development of ESDP. For example, the concept of a standing EU operational headquarters has been an outstanding controversy since proposals for a centre at Tervuren were first touted (and scrapped) three years ago. An EU Operations Centre (a not-quite-permanent OpHQ) was finally brought online at the beginning of this year, but giving it the significant capabilities necessary to run substantive missions is necessary if the EU plans to adopt KFOR without resorting to NATO’s command and control assets at Mons. As the issue of France’s return to the integrated command floats for the next nine months, it will be hard to stop the EU Operations Centre from developing toward the full-fledged headquarters originally envisioned at Tervuren.

The new tactic can only be good for NATO-EU relations. The crucial grand-bargain necessary to avoid duplication and competition between the two entities is not possible if some countries appear to back one institution “over” the other, encouraging beauty contests and side-picking (as was the tragic case in Darfur in 2005). While a clear division of labour is still elusive, there is a growing consensus that the EU will take on smaller military and peace-keeping missions in support of a larger civilian role (read governance, development, policing and judicial support), often in Africa. NATO will be better suited to higher-end combat and peace-enforcement missions. By joining the integrated command and demonstrating its confidence in NATO’s relevance, France makes it hard for the US and the UK to deny a growing and serious EU role in multinational security operations. The debate can sincerely turn from promoting or thwarting either organization to defining respective roles and competencies.

But how else will France’s full integration affect NATO? It will certainly remove the option of sending issues through the DPC to circumvent a member who has not been afraid to issue unaccompanied vetoes. But otherwise, the practical implications are indeed minimal. The reality is that NATO will always stand open to welcoming France. The French exception is by now a seemingly unnecessary and formal political and logistical headache, and the organization’s legitimacy is not bolstered by the inclusion of apparently reluctant members. A NATO official commented that it “created a buzz” around NATO HQ, and that full integration would have a big “psychological impact”.

That psychological impact will not only occur within NATO, but also further afield – and therein lies a strategy that is sure to reinforce unified positions and, it would seem to Mr. Sarkozy, benefit France in the long-run.