French Return to NATO Military Command Could Spur Greater Alliance Mission Clarity

A French return to NATO's military structure might help set a new tone, Kenneth Weisbrode writes.

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Kenneth Weisbrode is the Vincent Wright Fellow in History at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Among the many legends that endure from the 20th century is French obduracy with regard to its international—and particularly trans-Atlantic—relationships. Perhaps fickleness is a better word for it, because as President Nicolas Sarkozy finally confirmed recently, France is set to "rejoin" NATO's military command during the alliance's 60th anniversary next month.

Of course France never left the alliance itself in 1966. It merely formalized—by withdrawing from the integrated military organization and expelling NATO headquarters from the country—its longstanding ambivalence about collective defense and, more precisely, the United States.

The move in 1966 was aimed, in the words of Charles de Gaulle, who announced it, to reclaim French sovereignty over its national territory. Whatever he meant by that, or by his ostensibly independent entreaties with the Soviets, it wasn't neutrality. Nobody took seriously the possibility of France's abandoning the alliance. In any case, few people were surprised by what he did—least of all the Americans, who had long had a difficult relationship with de Gaulle and, in allowing or encouraging a series of mutual snubs since 1958, had helped to make estrangement a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Despite the great inconvenience de Gaulle's decision caused for some, it did no serious harm to NATO or to France's most important relationships with the allies. U.S. President Lyndon Johnson resisted making it into a big public issue. France went on to develop her own nuclear strike force. Yet a covert program of Franco-American nuclear cooperation began soon thereafter, while France's military ties with other NATO members remained close. Its permanent delegate to the North Atlantic Council rarely was treated any differently from his counterparts—and certainly not like an outcast.

In fact, French diplomats at NATO played a leading role with their American colleagues in laying the groundwork for the Helsinki Final Act, notably the humanitarian components of Basket III. Evidence is only beginning to emerge from the archives that the Americans and the French engaged in an essential pas de deux on this and other initiatives with both their Western European allies and the Soviets. So there is much more to the story than meets the eye.

Some recognition of the complexity in the relationship matters today insofar as France's coming back into the military fold ought not to be blown out of proportion. It certainly doesn't mean any automatic boost for NATO's effectiveness. It will probably be followed by business as usual.

There is an opportunity, however, for NATO to use France's action to help set a more unified tone and prompt a much overdue clarity of thinking about its current and future mission. In particular, an end to the distinction between France's membership in the alliance and its military organization could facilitate the harmonization of several roles that appear to contradict one another.

It is remarkable but also not surprising that, nearly two decades since the demise of the Warsaw Pact, NATO is confused over its raison d'être. On the one hand, it provides its Central and Eastern European members with an insurance policy against a revanchist or revisionist Russia. On the other hand, it promotes itself as the guarantor of Euro-Atlantic stability, and seeks in principle to cultivate a partnership with Russia in underwriting it. It also serves as the world's peacekeeper or peacemaker of last resort, first in the Balkans, now in Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere in the future.

Few experts claim that NATO can survive in its present form as a political and military alliance with so much simultaneously on its plate. It need not cut back radically, however. Rather, it must put forth an overarching strategy—as opposed to a mere set of policies—that gives logic, credibility and life to its necessary operational commitments.