PARIS: Few state visits have lasting results. Nicolas Sarkozy’s just completed trip to Washington may be an exception, because the French President may be preparing to bring Nato a highly valued present for its 60th anniversary in the spring of 2009: France’s return to Nato’s integrated military structure, from which Charles de Gaulle withdrew in 1966.
In retrospect, de Gaulle’s decision proved to be much more detrimental for France than for the Alliance. By withdrawing from Nato’s integrated military command, France excluded itself from political decision-making within the Alliance and thus became the equivalent of the “Harkis – the local soldiers who served with the French army during the Algerian war: fine soldiers, but with virtually no reward for their service.
How realistic is the possibility of scenario French return to Nato’s military fold? Historically, aborted moves and faux pas abound on both sides in the French/Nato relationship, the latest being Jacques Chirac’s failed attempt to patch up France’s relations with Nato upon his arrival in power in 1995. Success is not guaranteed this time, either, but the chances are much higher now, because France, the United States, and the world have changed.
For starters, the US now has a real friend and ally in the Élysée Palace. To speak of Sarkozy as a substitute for Tony Blair in Europe would be premature – and unhelpful, given Blair’s inability to exert significant influence on US policy. But Sarkozy is both eager to transform France’s relations with the Alliance and has a strategy to do so. Moreover, the French army supports such a move, while only a small segment of the Foreign Ministry is opposed.
Sarkozy’s strategy is to link progress in building a common European defense and security structure with a redefinition of Nato. More Europe in security terms means more Alliance. So, because Sarkozy wants to be seen as a convinced European, he must normalize France’s relations with a new Alliance based on two pillars – European and American.
Moreover, financial and human resources for military affairs are scarce and cannot be duplicated, while France and Britain want to restart the Saint-Malo process of bilateral defense efforts launched nearly 10 years ago. As a result, for the sake of Europe, France must move closer to the Alliance.
Sarkozy has also fully integrated into France’s approach to Europe a reckoning with the new balance of power within the European Union following the accession of Eastern European states. Unlike Chirac, he understands that it is counterproductive and unrealistic to ask countries like Bulgaria or Romania to choose between their European or Atlantic loyalties. Here, again, strengthening Europe requires strengthening the Alliance.
Sarkozy’s approach may work, because America, too, has changed. In American eyes, the Kosovo war in 1999 demonstrated Nato’s glaring and myriad shortcomings, while the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, moved America still further away from the Alliance, particularly after President George W. Bush disparagingly rejected Nato’s offer of help. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld even tried to use divide-and-rule tactics by pitting “New Europe against the “Old Europe led by France and Germany, which opposed the Iraq war.
Those divisions are now history, and American reservations about a European security pillar cannot trump America’s pressing needs for allied support. Confronted with disaster in Iraq, the risk of Afghanistan following Iraq into chaos, and the escalating crisis with Iran, the US can no longer treat the Nato allies with disdain. Although Europe remains militarily weak, America’s power is now in doubt. If a European pillar within Nato is needed to strengthen the Alliance, why not accept it?
Beyond the changes in France and the US, the decisive factor behind the possible reinvention of Nato is the transformation of the international system itself. Aside from the explosive situation in the Middle East and the threat of Islamist terrorism, the West is now confronted with the rise of Asia, the return of a more assertive Russia, and new energy and environmental challenges.
Both France and America have a key role to play in addressing these issues effectively. Sarkozy’s trip to Washington, and his address to a receptive US Congress, was one more step toward ensuring that they do so together.
Dominique Moisi,a founder and Senior Advisor at Ifri (French Institute for International Relations), is currently a Professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw. This article is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.