Letter from Europe: French defense hopes lie in rejoining NATO

By Judy Dempsey

BERLIN: With some luck, 800 French military officers will be packing their bags this summer and heading off to NATO commands. It is all part of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s bold plan to rejoin the U.S.-led alliance’s integrated military command, which France left 43 years ago.

Some of the officers will be sent to operational bases in Belgium, the Netherlands and elsewhere. But the jewel will be across the Atlantic in Norfolk, Virginia, where France will be given the lead position of Allied Command Transformation.

The commander of this prestigious post is responsible for overseeing the restructuring of NATO to improve cooperation with the U.S. military. Allied Command Transformation has traditionally been led by an American general. But as part of the price demanded by Sarkozy, the Norfolk post will be held for the first time by a European, and a French one at that.

By making the decision for France to play a full role in NATO, Sarkozy is trying to end decades of suspicion that have hampered NATO and paralyzed European defense efforts.

Under his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, France and Turkey became scapegoats for other NATO and European Union countries to hide their own divisions over defense policy.

Przeglądarka może nie wspierać wyświetlania tego obrazu.Turkey, which is a leading NATO member but is not in the EU, has prevented NATO from forging closer ties with the EU, partly as leverage in its negotiations to join the bloc. At EU headquarters, France has often blocked the EU from working more closely with NATO, suspicious that Europe’s defense ambitions would be reined in by the United States.

Sarkozy wants to end these tensions. They have been debilitating for both organizations, which have scant resources and can ill afford duplicating efforts, troops and equipment. As a bloc, the Europeans have not been prepared to take their defense and security policy seriously. Several countries are suspicious of France’s long term agenda.

Rejoining NATO’s integrated military structure, which would finally give France a full say in military issues, might just end those suspicions. „Sarkozy realizes that the EU cannot develop until the suspicions of France go away,” said Henning Riecke, a security specialist at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

It was Charles de Gaulle who, 43 years ago, was suspicious of the U.S. agenda for NATO. Fearing that the United States would use its dominance in NATO to weaken West European influence, de Gaulle expelled the Alliance from France to Belgium. He then pulled France, one of the founding members of NATO, out of the integrated military structures but not the political ones. The price was that Paris lost all influence over operations, strategy or doctrine.

Since then, the Gaullists have pursued a particular strategy aimed at pushing Europe to develop an independent defense and security policy that might eventually compete with NATO. But that policy has had minimal success; Europe has never agreed on what kind of defense policy the EU should pursue.

There were hopeful attempts. During a 1999 summit meeting in the French coastal city of Saint-Malo, where Tony Blair, then the British prime minister, and Chirac began the EU’s European Security and Defense Policy. It was supposed to bolster Europe’s military capabilities and create a rapid-reaction force of 60,000 (an ambition long abandoned), but in cooperation with NATO.

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