Sarkozy’s three-way NATO bet, by Camille Grand
France’s return to full military membership of NATO inevitably raised fears that the first casualty might be the
European defence project. But Camille Grand argues that far from weakening ESDP, President Sarkozy’s move intends to strengthen it while at the same time hastening NATO’s reform.
France’s return to NATO’s integrated military structure after a 43-year absence brings to an end at least one of the exceptions françaises, and it also helps frame the growing debate over whether to either develop European defence more effectively or to seriously reform the Atlantic alliance.
At first glance, it might seem that France has chosen NATO at the expense of a European defence strategy which, 10 years after the Anglo-French summit at St Malo that launched the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), has not lived up to France’s initial ambitions. But such a reading would mean taking a pessimistic view of the achievements of ESDP over the past decade, and would also be based on a flawed understanding of the relationships between NATO and the European Union. For, on the contrary, France’s new policy is far from being a U-turn that reflects disenchantment with ESDP. It is instead the product both of a rapprochement with NATO that has been taking place over the past 15 years, and of the real progress being achieved in European defence.
Only time will tell whether President Nicolas Sarkozy’s rapprochement with NATO was both politically astute and worthwhile in military terms. Presenting it as a “return to NATO” is also flawed, for although it’s a phrase that’s frequently used in the French and wider European debates on defence, it betrays a misunderstanding of the relationship between France and the alliance since 1966. France’s re-integration into NATO is in fact the final stage in a process that has seen the French military play an increasingly important role in NATO operations. France has been aligning itself with the military structures of a NATO that has progressively abandoned the practices that were at the root of General de Gaulle’s decision to quit, most notably the placing of all NATO forces under a single command, even in times of peace.
President Sarkozy’s new policy on NATO is thus more of a follow-up on decisions and developments in the 1990s than a radical U-turn from the policies of his predecessors. Where Sarkozy does distinguish himself from them is in adopting a more openly pro-Atlantic stance.
Over and above the often partisan and quintessentially French polemics that surrounded Sarkozy’s NATO decision, it’s possible to discern what might best be termed as a three-way wager by the President. The first concerns building European defence in an appeasing relationship to NATO, rather than in opposition to it. Ending the exception française in NATO has removed the suspicion that French support for the development of European defence was really aimed either at competing with the alliance or weakening it. Whether this suspicion has any truth or not, the message for many allies is clear; the developments the French want for ESDP are entirely compatible with its full and complete membership of NATO. The United States’ support for EU efforts to play a greater role in defence and security – a stance that has been apparent since 2007 and was confirmed by the arrival of the Obama Administration – consolidates this approach.
The second part of Sarkozy’s wager concerns reforming and renewing the alliance. France’s full engagement will increase the pace of reforms in the alliance and make NATO a tool better adapted to 21st century crises by paring down its cumbersome bureaucracy. France could not become an active player in this debate without being part of the alliance. But now, following the appointment of French officers to a number of key NATO posts, France can, along with the UK, the Netherlands and a few others of the NATO allies, begin to implement much-needed reforms.
The third and last part of the wager is "europeanising” the alliance, and it is perhaps the most difficult. France can help to give NATO more balance by spreading political and military responsibilities more evenly among Europeans and Americans. Now that the right political conditions exist in Washington, it is up to we Europeans to make the political decisions on budgets and resources that will enable us to reaffirm our role in NATO.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that the three parts of this wager will pay off. The forces of inertia are always strong, and when it comes to resources the current economic crisis doesn't favour either ambitious reforms of the alliance or a serious intensification of ESDP. It will be a few years yet before we can determine whether these ambitions have borne fruit.
The most serious criticism of Nicolas Sarkozy’s NATO move has been the questions it raises over whether France’s return to the alliance places the European defence project at risk or at least endangers the ambitious vision of the European Union as a leading strategic player. If that were the case, Sarkozy’s decision, regardless of the advantages to NATO or France, would clearly be open to criticism for weakening Europe’s defence ambitions.
If France were to have returned fully to NATO’s military structures 10 or 15 years ago, before ESDP existed, this would indeed be a serious and well-founded objection.
But the fact that the EU has become a politico-military player since 1998 radically changed the stakes. From 1999 to 2003, the process initiated at St-Malo concentrated first on putting in place the institutions needed for the EU to act. And in just a few years, the Union has now built a framework for managing civilian and military crises, however imperfect or incomplete these tools may still be.
The EU has since 2003 begun to assert itself operationally, carrying out 23 missions in the name of Europe’s defence and security policy, six of which have been significant military operations. It has engaged in the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan, not to speak of South-East Asia with its Aceh peacekeeping mission, and more recently in the Caucasus and in the Indian Ocean.
These operations have been very varied in scale, ranging from a few dozen observers, police officers or civilian advisors to several thousand soldiers. Although they have mostly been on land, operation “Atalanta” off the coast of Somalia saw the EU’s first naval operation. But all were launched autonomously, relying either on national command arrangements or on making the most of the command arrangements with NATO known as Berlin-plus.
This makes it reasonable to assert that far from ESDP’s achievements amounting to a “glass half empty”, the glass is in reality a good deal more than half full. In these circumstances, France’s full involvement in NATO looks far from being the burial of the European project but rather a vital tool for furthering it.
We won’t know whether President Sarkozy's wager will pay off for some time, but with his NATO decision France has put itself in a position to gain influence in the alliance and increase the pace of NATO’s reform, while at the same time strengthening ESDP.
Camille Grand is Director of the Paris-based defence policy think tank Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique.
Source : www.europesworld.org