Getting to Oui France's Return to NATO Can Complement EU Security

President Sarkozy seeks a rapprochement with NATO while strengthening the European Union’s defense dimension. France’s allies, including the United States and Germany, have welcomed this. But Sarkozy faces strong domestic resistance to changing France’s relationship to NATO.

By Leo Michel


French president Nicolas Sarkozy wants his country to become a full member of NATO again.
REUTERS

French president Nicolas Sarkozy wants his country to become a full member of NATO again.

In 1996, thirty years after French forces withdrew from NATO’s integrated military structures, President Jacques Chirac told the US Congress that France was ready to resume full participation in NATO. But the intra-alliance negotiations foundered upon Chirac’s insistence that NATO’s southern command pass from American to European (and presumably French) hands. The talks on an expanded French role collapsed in 1997, and the imbroglio helped to ignite a decade of transatlantic and intra-European wrangling over NATO and EU responsibilities regarding defense matters.

Addressing the US Congress some ten years later, in November 2007, President Nicolas Sarkozy said: “I wish to see France, a founding member of the alliance and one of its leading contributors, take its full place in the effort to renovate its instruments and means of action and, in this context, evolve [French] relations with the alliance in parallel with the evolution and reinforcement of European defense.” At the recent Bucharest summit, he even specified that the process of transforming France’s relationship with NATO would “conclude” at the alliance’s 60th anniversary summit in 2009.

Nevertheless, the question remains whether France and its allies will avoid repeating the mistakes of the 1996-97 experience. The protagonists might benefit from Getting to Yes, a classic study on negotiation methods.1 It describes the pitfalls of “positional bargaining” where each side essentially tells the other what it wants and then haggles toward a compromise. The risk is that individuals and governments become tied to defending positions rather than addressing the concerns at hand. This kind of argumentation damages relationships, and the situation worsens when multiple parties are involved. It would be better, advise the authors, to emphasize serious communication rather than playing to the gallery. Interlocutors should focus on interests, not positions, and create options for mutual gain.

Perhaps this method could help France reconnect to NATO. For one, the French government must address an array of public misunderstandings about its involvement in NATO. In the past, French officials were reluctant to do so, fearing domestic pressure to limit such involvement. Hence, while successive governments and la classe politique (on the left and right) have trumpeted the development of European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), the general public has remained unaware that France’s involvement in NATO -- measured in forces engaged in operations, military representation, and financial contributions -- far exceeds its analogous efforts in ESDP.

For example, French commitments to NATO operations in the Balkans stretch back to 1995 and in Afghanistan to 2003. As of early April 2008, France provided 2,000 military personnel to NATO’s Kosovo Force and 1,500 military personnel to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. At Bucharest, Sarkozy pledged 700 more soldiers for ISAF. Meanwhile, only 150 French military personnel serve in the European Union’s Operation Althea in Bosnia. While some 2,100 French troops have been pledged to the EU Force to Chad and the Central African Republic (EUFOR Chad/CAR) for one year, the other principal French military deployments under EU leadership -- around 1100 soldiers to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003 and some 800 to the same country in 2006 -- lasted about four months.

It is also underreported that France ranks as the fifth largest financial contributor to NATO -- in 2006, for example, to the tune of approximately 156 million euros. In comparison, the entire EU Common Foreign and Security Policy budget was around 200 million euros in 2007. Moreover, in addition to 90 liaison officers, the current French military representation in NATO includes some 110 officers and non-commissioned officers who work in the two strategic commands in Belgium and Virginia. Another 90 French personnel are in other NATO agencies. Hence, although the combined French military representation at NATO amounts to less than 10 percent of Germany’s and the United Kingdom’s, it nearly equals the entire EU military staff and European Defence Agency total of about 300 personnel.

Even before Sarkozy’s visit to Washington, there were hopeful signs of change in French attitudes. A mid-2007 report by three French senators described France’s role in NATO and advanced arguments for enhanced participation.2 And the government’s forthcoming “White Paper on Defense and National Security” should afford another opportunity to correct NATO’s “bogeyman” image in parts of the French establishment. A better informed French public is more likely to accept the logic of increasing participation and influence in NATO.

Second, to avoid the traps of “positional bargaining,” Paris needs to resist certain temptations. In a September interview, Sarkozy linked “reintegration” to creating space for French representatives in NATO decision-making.3 However, if Paris simply tables a list of its desired positions in NATO as the “price” for France’s “return,” this is more likely to offend allies than woo them. Over-reaching for key posts assigned to generals and admirals (and coveted by other allies, including Germany) is not the only potential problem. Many of France’s European partners, as well as the United States and Canada, want to know how Paris sees the “big picture” -- that is, how increased French participation will contribute to NATO’s strategy, reforms, capabilities, and operational effectiveness, not to mention facilitating its still difficult relations with the European Union. In a positive move in late 2007, Paris advanced practical suggestions to improve NATO-EU cooperation.

Similarly, Paris would be wise not to base its rapprochement with NATO on explicit concessions by or trade-offs with Washington. This must be a multilateral, not bilateral, process. True, the United States plays a pre-eminent role in NATO. But the arguments for increased French participation have as much to do with improving their interoperability and credibility with Germany, the United Kingdom, and other allies as it does with parrying what some French officials claim is “American domination” of the alliance.

The United States, Germany, and other allies can help this process in many ways. Washington’s position is, of course, particularly important. For many Europeans, American pronouncements during 2001-2004 -- for example, the mantra of “the mission determines the coalition” and thinly disguised barbs aimed at ESDP -- raised questions regarding the nature and strength of the US commitment to NATO and support for European defense efforts within the European Union. Yet, notwithstanding the recent flare-up between Washington and some European capitals over their level of effort in ISAF, the reaffirmed American desire to work within the alliance framework and to foster a stronger ESDP is no longer seriously in question.

At the February 2008 Munich Security Conference, the US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates aligned himself with calls by the NATO Secretary General and French defense minister for a pragmatic and “complementary” NATO-EU relationship. Later that month, US Ambassador to NATO Nuland surprised French officials with her forceful statement in Paris: “We agree with France: Europe needs, the United States needs, NATO needs, the democratic world needs -- a stronger, more capable European defense capacity. An ESDP with only soft power is not enough. As we look to the French EU presidency this summer, we hope France will lead an effort to strengthen European defense spending, upgrade European military capabilities with badly needed investment in helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, special forces, interoperable communications and counterinsurgency-trained soldiers and civilians. Because President Sarkozy is right -- NATO cannot be everywhere.” And at Bucharest, President Bush, according to his senior aides, struck a similar chord.

Still, with an eye to French (and broader European) sensitivities regarding Washington’s tone, Americans could help further by emphasizing more their partnership with their allies rather than their “leadership” of NATO. The United States cannot build European capabilities: That is the responsibility of European nations. But Washington can help by removing outdated impediments to transatlantic defense industrial cooperation that concern many allies, not just the French, and by continuing its support for multilateral and transatlantic solutions to capabilities development.

Moreover, France’s future position in NATO does not simply depend on a bilateral “deal” with the United States. Other allies -- especially those, like Germany, who are members of both NATO and the European Union -- can use judicious public statements and private encouragement to stiffen Sarkozy’s determination to move ahead with his NATO project in the face of domestic resistance. At the February Munich conference, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung erased any doubt regarding Berlin’s position, stating: “We want to see France fully integrated into the alliance’s military structures, and that includes the defense planning process. This will strengthen the European pillar and consolidate North America’s partnership with Europe.”

Finally, “positional bargaining” is not a uniquely French temptation and needs to be avoided on all sides. This is true not only for allies who were founding members of the alliance, but also for the newcomers -- such as Poland -- who claim to merit greater consideration for their candidates to key posts. Fortunately, there is more than one option for updating NATO structures so as to improve efficiency and equitably redistribute the responsibilities. In fact, some American, Dutch, and British ideas for streamlining commands are not so different from French ones. And while France needs to be realistic in its vision for European defense its fellow Europeans must help shape a “win-win” outcome for both NATO and the European Union.

This anticipated rapprochement is not about settling historic grudges, but rather helping the alliance and European Union work better together in the face of huge and constantly evolving challenges -- from Afghanistan and Kosovo to international terrorism and the increasing risks of proliferation of dangerous weapons technologies.

Leo Michel is a senior research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington, DC.

The author’s views do not represent the official policy of the US Department of Defense or any other US government agency.

1) Roger Fischer and William Ury, Getting to Yes (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981).

2) “Rapport d’information,” no. 405, July 2007.

3) Elaine Sciolino and Alison Smale, “Sarkozy, a Frenchman in a Hurry, Maps His Path,” The New York Times, September 24, 2007.

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