Opinion: Why NATO Should Embrace Sarkozy with Open Arms

By Amanda Kempa

The US and a number of European countries are skeptical of French President Sarkozy's idea of a European defense capacity within NATO. The alliance, though, should welcome the initiative. That, after all, was the original idea behind NATO.

Last month, US Permanent Representative to NATO Victoria Nuland asserted that the key to strengthening NATO was to build a stronger European Union. As "completely counterintuitive" as it might seem, Nuland argued, this was in fact in the best interests of the United States.

Hers is not a new argument. Indeed, to Dwight Eisenhower, NATO’s first Strategic Allied Commander in Europe and the man who presided over NATO's growth into the world’s strongest military alliance, Nuland's statement would not have seemed counterintuitive at all. Only two things would have puzzled the late President Eisenhower: First, why the strengthening of Europe has not been a basic objective of US trans-Atlantic policy for the past 40 years. And second, why the US and its European allies are not more receptive to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to build up European defense capabilities -- and increase its trans-Atlantic focus -- in conjunction with France's reintegration into the NATO alliance to be announced in Bucharest this week.

For Eisenhower, America's intensive involvement in European military affairs was supposed to be temporary. After World War II it became apparent that a militarily weak and politically divided Europe was at risk of falling under Soviet control. NATO was created primarily to address that threat. It was intended to provide the Europeans a protective umbrella under which to rebuild its military power and, just as importantly, regain its confidence to play an active geopolitical role. Eisenhower’s ultimate goal was for the US to recede militarily as quickly as possible and for Europe to become an independent and influential power bloc. This goal was not motivated by altruism. Rather, Eisenhower understood that a strong Europe, capable of acting independently and securing its own defense, would be as much in the interest of the United States as in its own.

Undermining Defense Integration

Although much has changed in US-European relations in the past half century, this argument is still remarkably sound. Thus, rather than viewing Sarkozy's plans with skepticism, American and European leaders should welcome them. Concern in Washington centers on the allegedly huge divide between American and European security interests and attitudes -- while some leaders in Europe believe that a closer relationship between France and the US will in fact undermine what little progress is being made toward European defense integration. Neither concern is justified.

First, Sarkozy has indicated that France wants to rejoin NATO provided that Europe is allowed to develop its own defense capacity within the alliance. When looked at in terms of Eisenhower’s views on the importance to the US of a militarily strong Europe, it is an initiative worth considering. Second, it appears likely that Sarkozy will request that France take over NATO’s Southern Command leadership, which up until this point has been the preserve of US admirals. When discussing France's possible reentry 10 years ago, Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, made a similar request, which Bill Clinton refused. This was a mistake. A more even distribution of responsibility within the alliance between the US and Europe is needed if the partnership is to be sustainable.

Against a la Carte

France's eagerness to not only rejoin NATO but also to assume a key command position could be an important contribution to such a distribution of responsibility. In 1966, when French President Charles de Gaulle pulled his country out of NATO's integrated military structure, he introduced what has been called the "NATO a la carte" mentality -- the idea that members can pick and choose the missions in which they want to participate or, even worse, if they want to participate at all. Current difficulties in Afghanistan -- with some countries doing the lion's share of the fighting (and dying) in the southern part of the country -- make it abundantly clear that such a two-tiered alliance simply doesn't work. By actively rejoining NATO and discarding the Gaullist mindset, France will be vehemently rejecting the "a la carte" mentality. In the process, it will set an important example for other, more complacent members of the alliance.

The most important implication of Sarkozy’s proposals, however, runs even deeper than this. It is best understood by looking at the effects of France’s withdrawal from NATO in the 1960’s. To deal with this blow to the organization, the United States and its European allies were forced to examine NATO’s role in light of the changing nature of the strategic threats it faced and realistically assess its capability of meeting them. It became clear that in order to remain relevant, NATO had to move beyond its traditional function as an exclusively military organization and become a political force. The result was a more flexible, less hierarchical military framework.

Rather than reacting to circumstances and events in an ad hoc manner, NATO needs to conduct a similar assessment today. Doing so, on the eve of its 60th anniversary, the alliance could finally realize Eisenhower’s vision of Europe as an active military force.

Amanda Kempa is a doctoral candidate at Oxford University and a Belfer Research Fellow at Harvard University.

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