Sat, Mar 14, 2009 - Page 9 News List

France contemplates new approach to NATO's military structure

Despite the recent economic downturn, France must invest in force protection and intelligence and improve its strategic transportation and air mobility

By Benoit d’Aboville

What will be the consequences of France’s return to NATO’s integrated military structure?

The Allies are quietly satisfied, but nobody expects major changes in France military contribution: In the last 10 years, it has been on par with the other major European allies. The reason is simple: Since France’s return to the Military Committee in 1994, its position within NATO has allowed for full participation in the alliance’s military and political activities. In Paris, the move has not in itself raised major political opposition for two main reasons.

First, nobody disputes the obvious: Since former French president Charles de Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from the military organization more than 40 years ago, the alliance and the world have changed profoundly. Today’s global threats demand greater European as well as NATO solidarity and the alliance’s successive enlargements mean that most EU members are now NATO members as well.

Second, the whole notion of “integration” is completely different than it was in de Gaulle’s day.

When the Warsaw Pact existed, NATO troops were positioned in such a way that any attack would collectively involve most of the allies. The whole Central Front was tightly coordinated and even France was involved in NATO planning through a set of special agreements. The Cold War’s end and the subsequent transformation of NATO into an “expeditionary alliance” has made “integration” largely irrelevant: Each member’s contribution to NATO operations is decided by individual NATO members ad hoc and on the basis of consensus.

This profound change in NATO’s role has been matched by a parallel rise in France’s role within the alliance. On the military level, it is worth recalling that France’s participation in NATO-led operations has been quite high since the 1999 Kosovo campaign. On average, between 2,000 and 3,000 French soldiers have been involved at any given moment, making France either the third or fifth largest contributor, depending on the year. Of 12,000 French soldiers deployed abroad this year, roughly 30 percent have been serving with NATO, with 2,000 troops in Kosovo and more than 3,000 in and around Afghanistan.

Moreover, in Paris there is a widely shared view that complementarity between the European defense project and NATO is both a major challenge and a worthy goal. As French President Nicolas Sarkozy has put it, France’s return to a full role in NATO should allay some of the fears expressed by members in Central Europe: The idea that France has been attempting to create an alternative to NATO through the European defense project is an old and stupid canard, but that has never prevented many from believing it.

France shares the wide consensus among allies on the need to renovate the transatlantic relationship and of the alliance itself. A new transatlantic relationship should involve both the alliance and the EU, making explicit reference to the further consolidation of the common European Security and Defense Policy. Former US president George W. Bush’s positive declaration about the policy at NATO’s Bucharest summit last year was a welcome sign that the dispute about whether NATO should continue to maintain a monopoly on European security issues is now behind us.

NATO itself should also undertake a long-delayed transformation. So far, there has been more talk than action. Almost everyone recognizes that the present structure of NATO is obese and outdated. Given the national interests involved, it will continue to be a difficult process, but, given the pressures on military budgets, the political context has never been more favorable. France’s new attitude toward NATO is therefore designed to be a contribution to achieving these twin objectives: It is a means to reforming the transatlantic relationship and NATO rather than an end in itself.

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