[Overseas view] No diplomatic U-turn for FranceDuring the past few weeks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, made several amicable declarations, leading people to conclude that France will soon reintegrate the NATO military structures it left in 1966 under Charles de Gaulle’s presidency.
Sarkozy is known for making strong remarks about French-American friendship. He even spent his summer holidays in the United States and was invited to a barbecue at the Bush family home. Therefore, a new debate has inflamed French political elites. Some are furious about it while some others are delighted: is France radically changing its foreign policy? Do we support a new Atlanticist alignment? Is it the end of the strategic autonomous stand, which has been France’s diplomatic trademark since de Gaulle’s presidency?
The reality is far more complex. It is not the first time a newly elected president has made closer relations with Washington a major focus. Obviously, opposition to the Iraq war transformed Jacques Chirac into a little devil to many Americans, despite the warming of relations after 2005. Regarding Lebanon, Iran and intelligence cooperation against terrorism, Paris and Washing-ton have worked together very well. Yet, one must be reminded that just after his first election in 1995, Chirac wanted to reintegrate NATO in exchange for the appointment of the South-ern command to a French officer and the so-called “Europeani-zation” of NATO or giving more responsibilities to the Europeans in the Atlantic Alliance.
In 1981, Francois Mitterrand supported, to great furor among European socialists, the deployment of U.S nuclear missiles to restore the atomic balance in Europe. Despite having been the main opponent of the Gaullist policy for 23 years, Mitterrand followed de Gaulle’s footsteps in terms of foreign policy. In 1974, Giscard d’Estaing was disregarded as pro-American, his policy of greater cooperation with Germany being interpreted as paving the way for American domination over Europe.
When Georges Pompidou came to the Elysee, the conventional wisdom was that it was a rare opportunity to put an end to de Gaulle’s personal opposition to American leadership. Last but not least, when de Gaulle came to power, one of his first diplomatic moves was to ask President Dwight D. Eisen-hower to create a triumvirate for NATO, a shared leadership that would have included Paris, Washington and London.
The French proposal got rebuffed by the Americans. Every time Paris asked for closer cooperation, the Americans refused its demands. Therefore, Sarkozy is more in continuity, rather than in disagreement, with other French presidents’ mandates. On top of that, the discordance would not be so significant.
France is not really that far from NATO anyway. It is only absent from two committees, the nuclear planning group and the defense plans committee. France took part in the Kosovo war under the aegis of NATO in 1999 and is broadly involved in Afghanistan, again under NATO structures. Since the end of the Cold War, a steady rapprochement has occurred.
One must not forget that the French and the American chiefs of staff signed an agreement in 1967, immediately after de Gaulle’s spectacular opting out in 1966 which was designed to plan French participation under American command in case of a war in Europe. Therefore, a reintegration would not constitute a diplomatic U-turn.
However, it is true that such a move would be a strong and meaningful symbol. Beyond technical and operational aspects, a reintegration would be perceived in Europe as well as in the rest of the world as the acceptance by Paris of U.S. leadership.
The special status France enjoys vis-a-vis the United States has many advantages that would be risky to renounce without any alternative.
The challenge now is to achieve the reinforcement of the European defense pillar inside NATO in exchange for French reintegration, a long-term goal for France that the United States has always refused, whatever the official agreement.
Sarkozy put forth two conditions for French reintegration: acceptance by Washington of this Europeanization and a major role for France inside NATO.
Therefore, there are only two options left. If Washington accepts these two prerequisites, France will not be at risk of reintegrating NATO. The organization would become a totally different structure than the one Paris left five decades ago, and France’s long-term diplomatic goal of enhancing European power would be achieved.
The balance of force between Europe and the United States would be corrected to Europe’s advantage.
If the Americans refuse these conditions once again, it will become useless to move. The challenge is to obtain real concessions from the U.S., any French move being subject to American acceptance.
There is also another condition: to halt the project that tries to transform the Atlantic Alliance into a “global” one by enlarging both its mission (into a “war on terror”) instead of defense of European countries and its composition (adding Japan, for example, would infuriate China) instead of focusing on the European defense.
This would turn NATO into a tool for a clash of civilizations. It is far from sure that France will give up its traditional stance regarding the United States.
If Washington comes back to a more multilateral diplomacy, Franco-American cooperation will improve. The more the United States engages in unilateral and counter-productive diplomacy, the more France will oppose it, even with Sarkozy.
*The writer is director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
By Pascal Boniface