By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 12, 2009
PARIS, March 11 -- President Charles de Gaulle infuriated the United States when he suddenly pulled France out of NATO's military command in 1966, arguing he had to preserve French independence in world affairs.
Forty-three years later, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Wednesday, France has decided to return as a full-fledged member of the 26-nation military pact, the North Atlantic Alliance, which came together under U.S. leadership at the start of the Cold War in 1949 and has served as the basis for U.S.-European security relations since.
Casting aside Gaullist dogma long cherished in France, Sarkozy declared that rejoining the U.S.-led integrated command in Brussels will not diminish the independence of France's nuclear-equipped military and, on the contrary, will open the way for more French influence in deciding what NATO's new missions should be after the Cold War.
"The time has come," he said in a speech to France's Strategic Research Foundation, adding, "Our strategy cannot remain stuck in the past when the conditions of our security have changed radically."
The decision, widely debated even before it was formally announced, marked another significant step in Sarkozy's effort to bring France and the United States closer together after a period of estrangement and backbiting. Since taking over in May 2007, Sarkozy has repeatedly declared himself a friend of Washington and made gestures to warm the chill that had settled over French-U.S. relations under Presidents George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac, chiefly because of Chirac's opposition to the Iraq war and Bush's with-us-or-against-us approach.
"We need a renewed trans-Atlantic partnership between an America that is open and a Europe that is being strengthened," Sarkozy's defense minister, Hervé Morin, said in an address to the same conference.
Sarkozy said he would formally notify France's allies of its return to the NATO command during celebrations to mark the North Atlantic Alliance's 60th anniversary, with President Obama in attendance, scheduled for April 3-4 in Strasbourg, France, and Kehl, just across the border in Germany. At Sarkozy's insistence, according to reports in Paris, Obama has penciled in a stop beforehand at the World War II Normandy landing beaches to dramatize the historic underpinnings of French-U.S. ties.
De Gaulle's defiant gesture, which caught Washington unaware, came at a time when U.S.-European security revolved around girding against a possible Soviet attack from the East. It meant in theory that the French military and its nuclear arsenal would no longer take orders from the American general commanding NATO forces. In addition, de Gaulle ordered out thousands of U.S. troops stationed on French soil and at NATO headquarters, then in a Paris suburb.
France never left the overarching North Atlantic Alliance, however, and within a year the practical effect of withdrawing from the integrated command was also watered down. A secret accord between U.S. and French officials, the Lemnitzer-Aillert Agreements, laid out in great detail how French forces would dovetail back into NATO's command structure should East-West hostilities break out.
Since then, the threat of a Soviet attack has melted away and NATO has launched a long study about how it should redefine its mission in the 21st century, including what has become a practice of military operations beyond the borders of member countries. Since the 1990s, for instance, NATO forces have intervened in conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, none of which fit the NATO mission as originally conceived.
Despite their absence from the integrated command, French forces, the largest in Europe with 259,000 regulars and 419,000 reservists, have been major contributors to each of these interventions. More than 3,000 French soldiers have been dispatched to Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force and, since Sarkozy became president, they have expanded their role to include combat missions.
Sarkozy argued that, given the level of French participation on the ground, it made no sense for France to continue boycotting the command structure that runs such interventions.
"We send our soldiers onto the terrain but we don't participate in the committee where their objectives are decided?" he said. "The time has come to end this situation. It is in the interest of France and the interest of Europe."
In any case, he added, rejoining the integrated command still leaves France free to refuse to participate in an operation that it judges unwise. For instance, Germany, a full NATO member, refused to get involved in the Iraq war, he pointed out.
Sarkozy said France's return to the integrated command will not bring a radical strategic change for France as a nuclear power because Paris will remain outside NATO's nuclear coordination. As a result, he said, he will still be the only one with his finger on the button of French nuclear weapons.
Former prime minister Édouard Balladur recalled in a recent interview with Le Figaro newspaper that he began negotiations on a return to the integrated command when he was prime minister as far back as two decades ago, under the Socialist president, François Mitterrand. Similar negotiations were held under Chirac several years ago, Sarkozy said. But in both instances, they foundered on the level of participation by French officers in NATO's key commands.
In the agreement shaping up now, reports here said, French generals will be given the command of NATO's regional headquarters near Lisbon and the Norfolk, Va.-based Allied Command Transformation study group drawing up plans for future NATO missions.
The return to NATO's integrated command also will require France to slightly increase its financial contributions, estimated at about $175 million a year, or 7.5 percent of the total. But that represents a small part of France's military budget, estimated at $44 billion this year, and has not been a factor in the debate.
Sarkozy predicted that the country's return to NATO command also will accelerate development of a European defense force, long a goal of French diplomacy.
Previously, he said, Britain and to some degree Germany and other countries were reluctant to cooperate with France on such a force out of fear it would be interpreted as a split from NATO. As a result, the idea of a European defense force was hailed repeatedly at European Union summit meetings but has produced little in the way of practical results.
Since Sarkozy's plans became known in recent weeks, the president has found himself under attack from the main opposition group, the Socialist Party, and from those attached most strongly to the Gaullist heritage within his own conservative coalition. But he said that France over the years has quietly resumed cooperation with almost all facets of the NATO command and that his decision was a final step recognizing the reality of a long process.
Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who served with Sarkozy under Chirac, nevertheless called the decision a blunder that would dilute the independence of French foreign policy. Ségolène Royal, the Socialist former presidential candidate, said Sarkozy was identifying France too closely with the United States just as the world was moving from U.S. domination.
In response, Prime Minister François Fillon said he would put the government's foreign policy up for debate in the National Assembly on Tuesday. That will give the Socialists an opportunity to vent their criticisms of the NATO move, observers noted, but will force Sarkozy's coalition majority to swallow its reservations and vote with the government.