Sarkozy and NATO: The Road to a New Leadership?

« France, an ally but not a vassal, faithful but unsubdued, always fraternal but never subservient: that is the nature of our relationship with America » François Fillon, French Prime Minister
On April, 3rd, 25 heads of State gathered in Strabourg (Eastern France) to celebrate the 60th anniversary of NATO and irremediably faced the thousands of angry demonstrators who view this organisation as a ‘war machine’ and an obstacle against World Peace. It is indeed at this eventful occasion that President Sarkozy has announced

that his country will fully reintegrate the military structure of NATO, an organisation that France had left in 1966, in hope to ‘eventually’ reaffirm its leadership on the world stage. To some, this political move formalizes the end of the ‘sacred’ French independance vis-à-vis the US and its allies (even though France has never left the Alliance, only the military command) and signs the death warrant of this ‘certain idea of France’ initiated by De Gaulle. To more realist others, this would actually allow France to command some of the overseas operations and therefore freely decide whether or not to engage its troops under NATO mandate.

Now, what does that really involve in terms of implications and consequences for the Alliance and the Franco-American relationship that derives from it ?
It would indeed be illusory to think France is now rejoining NATO only to re-establish itself as the strong nation it used to be and one can wonder if the French government would have taken this path without a tangible ‘retribution’ that would both strengthen its position in Europe and serve its ambition to build a strong Common European Defense.

Since the late 1980’s, and without actively participating in the strategic decisions, France has been nevertheless the fourth contributing nation (currently more than 4,500 troops) to NATO overseas operations and is today one of the major donors in terms of financial aid, This reintegration is therefore viewed as a response to this lack of exposure and the French authorities are now lobbying NATO to gain more control over the organisation and its policy. French president Sarkozy, who has already won U.S. approval for handing over control of the Norfolk Command Center (known as the Allied Command Transformation, this unit is responsible for laying out the long-term vision of the Atlantic alliance), is now trying to convince NATO to let France (in association with Italy) ‘inherit’ the regional command in Lisbon (in charge of the naval operations in the southern atlantic region). These two commanding positions will allow France and Europe at large to design its own defense policy and many Western officials view Sarkozy’s decision as a signal to the world that Europe is now serious about developing a strong, independent defense by introducing a new security deal in association with the American authorities.

Now as the conflict in Afghanistan is dragging on and the Iranian nuclear ‘threat’ is monopolizing the world’s attention, the US have now to battle on multiple fronts at the same time and who knows if the European security will still remain an American priority for long (President Obama has for example recently indicated that the missile-shield in Eastern Europe was no longer an urgency and that his administration was now ready to open a new round of negotiations with Russia regarding its deployment). Given the recent political events and the new French position in the Alliance, one can wonder if France might then one day become a substitute to the American takeover in the European affairs and ‘steal’ the leading role in keeping Europe safe. As Sarkozy said « When France takes its rightful place in NATO, Europe will have more of a say in the alliance… and European defence will be stronger, ». Given the anarchial nature of today’s world and the new menaces that are threatening our security, only history will prove him right..or wrong.

Geoffroy Saint-Grégoire,

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