Leo Michel on Sarkozy and NATO

In March 1966, Charles de Gaulle wrote a five-paragraph letter to Lyndon Johnson stating that France, while remaining a party to the NATO alliance, intended to withdraw from its integrated military structures. Bitter rows with LBJ over East-West relations, Vietnam and the sprawling U.S. bases in France partly explained the rupture. But le Général aimed to send a broader message: France would not accept any impediments to its sovereignty or ability to conduct an "independent" foreign policy. Controversial at the time, his stand eventually became an article of faith across the French political spectrum.

Forty-three years later, President Nicolas Sarkozy recognizes that the world, France and NATO have changed greatly since de Gaulle. Unlike some influential French political figures, he harbors no illusion that his country can build a "European" defense, based on the European Union, as an alternative to the transatlantic alliance. "It's ridiculous," he said at the recent Munich Security Conference, "that France has been suspected of wanting to weaken NATO while we have taken an increasingly important place within it." Ending France's à la carte approach to NATO also serves Sarkozy's objective of cementing close ties to the United States. But having promised to seal the "normalization" of French relations with NATO at the alliance's April summit in Strasbourg and Kehl, Sarkozy must now rebut de Gaulle's premise—that participation in NATO's military structures is incompatible with French independence—without appearing disrespectful to the late president's memory.

Sarkozy's first task—explaining "normalization" to his public—should not be too difficult. NATO has 11 major headquarters across nine countries, directed by some 100 generals and admirals with ranks of one to four stars. The top positions are allocated on the basis of criteria including an ally's contribution to NATO's military budget, its role in operations (with a bonus for more difficult ones like Afghanistan), its participation in NATO's nuclear forces, and its share of the nearly 15,000 officers and noncommissioned officers assigned to headquarters staffs. Currently, the United States holds three of the alliance's four-star posts, including its two "supreme commander" positions. Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy share the four other four-star posts. But France, one of the top-ranking Europeans in terms of military personnel engaged in NATO operations (including 2,800 troops in Afghanistan and 1,800 in Kosovo) and payments to NATO's budgets, contributes just two one-star flag officers to NATO headquarters and provides barely 1 percent of the headquarters staffers.

This incontestably limits French influence on the strategic direction of the alliance, the development of its doctrines and capabilities, and the planning and conduct of its operations. It also deprives the other allies of valuable expertise residing in the French military establishment, one of Europe's most experienced in complex stabilization missions. Recent French press reports have described a tentative deal under which France would get one or two of the top military posts now held by Americans, send several hundred officers and noncommissioned officers to NATO staffs and rejoin the defense planning committee that it quit in 1966.

While some of Sarkozy's critics prefer the status quo, arguing it would be less costly, others warn that "normalization" will diminish France's international stature. Sometimes invoking Gaullist tenets, they claim that la grande nation will be seen as joining the other U.S. "vassals" within the alliance. Yet it's hard to believe that the Taliban worry about the level of French participation in NATO's headquarters. Or that Russian, Iranian or other leaders in Asia, Africa or Latin America particularly care if France boycotts one or two of its principal committees. And those French politicians who denigrate allies who do participate fully in NATO structures can hardly hope to build defense cooperation with those same European governments under EU auspices.

Ultimately, the best arguments for normalization are straightforward. Every step taken by France to improve the cohesiveness and efficiency of NATO will sooner or later benefit European defense as well—in terms of capabilities, interoperability and operational performance. At stake in this hoped-for rapprochement between France and NATO is the ability of the transatlantic partners to respond to huge 21st-century challenges, including Afghanistan, terrorism and weapons proliferation. Last June, in unveiling France's White Book on Defense and National Security, Sarkozy captured these essential points when he reminded his compatriots that "this alliance between Europeans and the United States is also—this is not said enough—an alliance among the European nations." It remains for him to convince his public that a stronger alliance will reinforce the independence of all its members.