Sarkozy’s Power Play
The French president's flamboyant presentation shouldn't be taken for incoherence. He has a plan for France.
In a long-anticipated move, Nicolas Sarkozy last week announced France's formal intention to, as he put it, reintegrate [into] NATO.
In a long-anticipated move, Nicolas Sarkozy last week announced France’s formal intention to, as he put it, reintegrate [into] NATO.
In so doing, the French president has opened himself anew to charges that he is trading France’s treasured autonomy for an alignment with the United States. But domestic critics may have it backwards: Sarkozys real goal all along has never been to simply draw Paris closer to Washington, but rather to use warmer relations as one of many tools to increase France’s influence.
The French have had a half-in, half-out relationship with NATO since 1966, when then President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from the alliance’s integrated command structure, thereby reclaiming what he called the complete exercise of its sovereignty. France had been progressively extricating its forces from the NATO chain of command for most of the previous decade. The final decision was triggered primarily by changes in the United States’ doctrine of nuclear deterrence that raised fears in France of being drawn into wars not of its choosing.
But because France never actually left NATO, reintegration is a somewhat misleading term. France is currently the fourth-largest contributor of both money and troops deployed in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Over the past 10 years, France has increasingly rejoined the political and operational components of the alliance, currently sitting on 36 of the organization’s 38 committees. Until now, however, it has remained outside the permanent military command structure, meaning that it holds none of NATO’s permanent commands and does not participate in the strategic planning that goes into operational deployments. That absence is precisely what the announced move will remedy.
Sarkozy’s decision is part of a broader shift toward reaffirming France’s place in what he calls the family of the West — a project he began upon taking office in May 2007. In concrete terms, that has meant a more vocal opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a recommitment to the NATO war effort in Afghanistan, and demonstrations of French solidarity with U.S. objectives in Iraq.
All of those initiatives have generated charges of a pro-American alignment. But with his NATO shift, Sarkozy has fractured a long-standing domestic consensus over France’s national security posture. Summed up by former Foreign Minister Hubert Vdrine as friends, allies, non-aligned, France’s stubborn insistence on its autonomy and liberty of position in matters of national security confounded U.S. expectations throughout the Cold War and aroused suspicion in its aftermath. But for the French, it has been a source of national pride, creating a self-image of occupying a unique place in the West and the world. To be sure, France has always had its Atlanticists who favored a closer relationship with the United States. But in a country famous for its celebration of contrarianism, it was a position that bordered on the unseemly.
The announcement has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum. Ironically, the socialists who in 1966 opposed De Gaulle’s decision oppose Sarkozy today for reversing it. Even the centrists are opposed, as Mouvement Dmocrate leader Franois Bayrou articulated in an interview with Le Figaro. We’re renouncing our singularity, the sign of our independence that gave France an identity in the concert of nations, he told the newspaper. In accepting integration, France is amputating a part of the credit she enjoys with the rest of the world, with Africa, with the Middle East.
These more predictable adversaries have been joined by Gaullist parliamentarians from Sarkozy’s own Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party. Party luminaries and former Prime Ministers Dominique de Villepin and Alain Jupp are among the many who contend that NATO reintegration will limit France’s cherished freedom of action.
Sarkozy has dismissed the suggestion, maintaining instead that by joining the command structure, France will increase its influence within the alliance. We don’t have a single military post of responsibility. We don’t have our say when the Allies define the military objectives and means for the operations in which we participate, Sarkozy said, describing the status quo in his speech formalizing the move last Wednesday. In concluding this process, France will be stronger and more influential. Why? Because those who are absent are always wrong. Because France must codirect, rather than submit.
By fully joining NATO, Sarkozy also argues, France will have more opportunities to influence the alliance’s strategic vision at a time when the Afghanistan mission is testing its sense of purpose. Significantly, among the commands France is rumored to have secured is the Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, responsible for future planning in doctrine and operations. By integrating other commands at a staff level, it will also be able to contribute to mission planning to a greater degree.
But the critics also have a point. The political calculus that first motivated Sarkozy to broach a trans-Atlantic rapprochement in his address to the U.S. Congress in November 2007 now seems dated. At the time, a toxic Bush administration in search of European friends seemed to offer high political dividends. After returning from Washington, Sarkozy spoke openly of U.S. acceptance of enhanced European defense and commitments to a more cooperative stance on climate change as concessions his approach had already won. But with all of Europe now competing to be U.S. President Barack Obama’s privileged interlocutor, the potential payoffs from Sarkozy’s NATO gesture have been dramatically reduced.
His claims notwithstanding, France’s longtime interest in promoting the defense capabilities of the European Union have further complicated the issue. As a condition for NATO reintegration, Sarkozy demanded that the United States and Britain relax their opposition to European defense. By all indications, he might have won the argument this time. If so, it is also due in part to the urgent shortage of deployable troops for world crises — a deficit that buttresses the French claim that EU military cooperation is not hostile to NATO, but rather complementary to it. EU deployments in Africa and South Lebanon under Sarkozy’s presidency, for example, have demonstrated the practical advantage of a Western multilateral force without the U.S. stigma attached.
But Sarkozy’s proposed quid pro quo has predictably raised fears among NATO supporters that the French president’s real goal is to gradually dissolve the alliance from within. This fear is not as outlandish as it sounds. By resurrecting previously floated proposals for a semiautonomous European pillar within the alliance, France could conceivably attempt to convert the alliance’s European military capabilities into a de facto EU defense. Indeed, the second command the French are rumored to have secured is the alliance’s rapid response command in Lisbon, Portugal. However, such a theoretical scenario would still have to contend with the lack of any real appetite in Europe for a muscular defense capability independent of an American-dominated NATO.
Sarkozy’s insistence on EU defense sheds light on his greater vision for France — one that has at times escaped both foreigners and French people alike. Despite his domestic critics’ fears, Sarkozy is hardly trying to turn Paris into a satellite of Washington. Rather, he wants to see a strong France amplified by a stronger Europe. To achieve that, he has tried to balance greater multilateral cooperation, especially with the United States and France’s European partners, with an independent line, such as his diplomatic engagement with Syria at a time the United States was attempting to isolate Damascus.
Meanwhile, Sarkozy has adroitly used the EU to amplify French diplomacy. During France’s recent EU presidency, for instance, Sarkozy transcended the largely symbolic prestige of the office to mediate a cease-fire in Georgia, demonstrating the value of a strong EU executive and the need for a more formal institutional structure. The subsequent European weakness during both the Gaza war (to which Sarkozy was accused of contributing by pursuing an independent French initiative) and the Ukraine-Russia gas dispute only served to accentuate that need.
The frenetic pace and improvised quality of Sarkozy’s methods have led critics to accuse him of lacking any guiding logic. They also point out that despite his propensity for stealing the spotlight and making headlines, most of his high-profile initiatives — such as the Union for the Mediterranean and the push for ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon — have amounted to few long-term accomplishments. Even the cease-fire he obtained between Russia and Georgia last August amounted to formalizing Russia’s gains on the ground. To add insult to injury, Moscow didn’t even respect all of its terms.
Yet if Sarkozy has been right on almost nothing, he has been prescient on almost everything, guided by the attention-seeker’s instinctive flare for tomorrow’s crisis today. (For instance, his decision to engage Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the time of Lebanon’s presidential impasse in January 2008 later paid off in access to crucial back channels during the Gaza war.) His logic is the logic of the deal, where both fault lines in opinion and emerging consensus create leverage points that maximize France’s influence. His handling of last year’s NATO summit — where he sided with Germany to successfully oppose expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, while pacifying Washington with a much-needed troop increase to the Afghanistan deployment — is a perfect illustration of how he manages to turn France into either the tiebreaker or the consensus sealer.
France’s return to the heart of NATO will certainly not spell the end of France’s independence and autonomy, nor will it prove the alliance’s undoing. But both will be changed, in ways that no one — least of all Sarkozy — can foresee. Rich in symbolism, profound in consequences, unpredictable in effect: The move is typical Sarkozy, for whom it is the deed, and not the outcome, that matters.
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