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Sunday, 8 March 2009

Sarkozy Embraces NATO, and Bigger Role for France

The French, who never really left, are expected to rejoin NATO as full members at the alliance’s 60th anniversary summit meeting next month.

The decision, still to be formalized by President Nicolas Sarkozy, has stirred a predictable political debate in France, but it is being welcomed by Washington and France’s European allies.

The full reintegration of France into the command structure of NATO will have little practical impact; France has long contributed money and is the fourth largest contributor of troops. But the decision to rejoin as a full partner carries enormous political and psychological weight, NATO officials and experts say.

It could promise an effective end to an argument that has lasted decades, led by France, about Europe acting as a “counterweight” to the United States in military affairs.

Herman Schaper, the Dutch ambassador to NATO, said that other Europeans “were always pushed into taking a European approach or the U.S. approach — to choose between being ‘Atlanticist’ or ‘European.’ ” It was “a fake debate, but it worked through the alliance in many ways,” he said. “Now it’s over.”

For too long, Mr. Schaper said, “problems became theological and not practical, and now we’re being more pragmatic” in decision-making. “I see it as a huge step forward the French are taking because of its impact on other countries, and it closes this long debate.”

The American ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, noted that Washington, too, had moved toward embracing a European security and defense identity within NATO — with European-led tasks like the policing of Kosovo — and wanted a more muscular European role, not the reverse. “Sarkozy argues that France is being reintegrated into a transformed NATO, and I believe that’s true,” he said. France’s decision, he added, “underscores that NATO is a European institution, and it means that this ‘counterweight’ argument is dead.”

Even under President Obama, there will still be serious arguments between the United States and its allies, on such issues as Afghanistan and how to deal with Russia and the NATO candidacies of Ukraine and Georgia.

In many ways, NATO has been drifting since its post-cold-war enlargement, taking on major commitments like Afghanistan without a serious debate over the alliance’s strategy and purpose. But those arguments can now take place within an alliance where France has a full voice, and where Washington is less skeptical of Paris’s intentions.

Mr. Sarkozy made closer ties and reintegration with NATO a part of his presidential campaign in 2007. Last month, at a conference in Munich, he repeated his determination to strengthen links with NATO despite opposition at home. He argues that France exercises the most influence within larger institutions like the European Union, NATO and the United Nations Security Council when it participates fully, and that its influence with Washington has gone up as the tension and rhetoric have gone down.

“It’s absurd to have troops in the field and not be part of the integrated military command,” said a senior French official, asking for anonymity because of the domestic political debate. “We are a major contributor to NATO in money and troops; at one point France led alliance forces in Kosovo and in Kabul, and we’re proud of that. If we send troops, isn’t it better to have some generals participating?”

Washington may not always like the European aversion to war — as displayed in the reluctance of most NATO members to send more troops to Afghanistan. But France, like Britain, is a European country that fights. It has a serious military establishment, including nuclear arms, and an expeditionary tradition.

France’s return is likely to mean it gets two commands: the Allied Command Transformation project in Virginia, examining a more modern alliance, and the regional command headquarters in Lisbon, which is in charge of NATO’s rapid response force. Paris will take part in all military planning, and French officers will be integrated into NATO’s command structures.

The NATO summit meeting itself, true to the symbolism of a new postwar Europe, will be hosted by Germany and France. But much of the business of the meeting will be done in France, in Strasbourg, itself a symbol of more than 60 years of peace among Europe’s great powers.

Still, Mr. Sarkozy’s decision to rejoin NATO has prompted a political debate in France over the nature of its influence in a multipolar world and its degree of intimacy with Washington. The decision has caused some unease in the more Gaullist wing of his own center-right party — it was Charles de Gaulle, after all, who in 1966 pulled France out of the military command, and kicked American bases out of France and NATO headquarters out of Paris in an effort to preserve French policy independence.

But the critics are a minority, and Mr. Sarkozy’s control over his party is unchallenged. Next Page »