April 1, 2008 | Commentary on Foreign Aid and Development

Deficient Proposal

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to unveil a series of proposals for rejoining NATO's integrated military command structure at the Bucharest Summit on April 2-4. Sarkozy will hold talks Thursday in London with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, aimed at securing British support for the French proposal. Paris will reportedly offer an additional troop contribution for the NATO mission in Afghanistan which would include the deployment of elite paratroopers to the east of the country, allowing the United States to move more troops to the main theater of operations in the south. In return, Paris will seek British and American backing for an independent European Union defense structure.

Sarkozy first announced the possibility of a French rapprochement over NATO in an interview in September last year, when he made two demands according to the New York Times: "American acceptance of an independent European defense capability and a leading French role in NATO's command structures." He repeated the theme in his address to Congress in November, where he called on "the Alliance to evolve concurrently with the development and strengthening of a European defense."

Sarkozy's offer of an olive branch to the NATO alliance will be France's second attempt to rejoin the organization's command, following former president Jacques Chirac's unsuccessful effort in 1997, when Paris was rebuffed by the Clinton administration. However, once again, the ransom being demanded by Paris for a return to the NATO fold is too high a price for the United States and Great Britain to pay.

Washington ought not be tempted to accept this offer and bargain away the future of the transatlantic alliance for the promise of a few hundred or perhaps a thousand more troops in Afghanistan. France's relationship with NATO has always been complex and troubled, and her introduction into the organization's command structure is highly unlikely to improve the effectiveness of NATO's operations. Indeed, it would have the opposite effect, by creating a rival EU command structure among NATO member states, a move which could tear NATO in half and ultimately destroy it.

The full development of an independent European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) is a long-term policy goal of Paris, and will be the centerpiece of the French Presidency of the European Union, starting July 1, 2008. In terms of French strategic thinking, the NATO issue is an important bargaining tool for Paris to strengthen its own vision of a French-driven EU as a powerful world player in the political, economic, and military spheres.

Under the existing Berlin Plus arrangements (a package of agreements between NATO and the European Union), the NATO Alliance not only maintains the right of first refusal to conduct crisis management operations-- if the EU wishes to use NATO resources, it may only act independently in an international crisis if NATO chooses not to -- but all members have an effective veto by virtue of the fact that the EU may only draw on NATO assets if the whole alliance approves. If French ambitions for a separate defense identity are realized, the United States effectively loses its veto power. The ESDP would become a powerful autonomous force within the Alliance, with access to NATO's resources and capabilities, as opposed to an instrument that should only be activated where NATO does not want to act as a whole. An autonomous EU defense identity within NATO could become the motor of the Alliance, representing a significant dilution of U.S. and British influence over decision-making.

Ironically, Paris sees London and not Washington as the main barrier to French reintegration into the upper echelons of NATO. Gordon Brown is known to be skeptical regarding the French proposal, and according to the Guardian, "French officials have expressed disappointment at the lukewarm reaction so far," with a French diplomat quoted as saying "we had hoped for a more welcoming response from Britain."

In contrast, Bush-administration officials have begun to send positive, conciliatory messages to the Sarkozy administration, which clearly indicate that the United States may be open to a French proposal to rejoin the NATO club on Paris's terms.

In a major speech to the Presse Club in Paris last month, Ambassador Victoria Nuland, U.S. permanent representative to NATO, told her French audience:

So I am here today in Paris to say that 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 . . . we need a stronger EU, we need a stronger NATO and if Afghanistan has taught us anything, we need a stronger, more seamless relationship between them. I would go further: if we truly believe in a transatlantic comprehensive approach to security - one that combines the best of our soft and hard power-- we need a place where we can plan and train for such missions as a NATO-EU family. . . .In this city, we have a president that is prepared to use his EU presidency to strengthen Europe's defense contribution and then bring France back into a renovated NATO. With a French engine in both organizations, we have an opportunity now to bring them closer together. In Washington, leaders of all stripes are calling for more, not less Europe, and applauding President Sarkozy's appeal for the European Union and NATO to "march hand in hand."

Ambassador Nuland's support for "a stronger, more capable European defense capacity" stands in stark contrast to earlier warnings by U.S. officials against what former Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to as "independent EU structures that duplicate existing NATO capabilities." In a 2003 press briefing, then U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, made it categorically clear that under the Berlin Plus agreement "the EU will not seek to create duplicative institutions." Burns stated that "we could not support and will not support the creation of an alternative EU military headquarters, whether it's in Tervuren or some other place, in Brussels or elsewhere. That would be, we think, duplicative, needlessly costly, and that would in essence, we think, be a contradiction to the Berlin Plus Agreements. Neither will we support a planning facility either."

In January 2007, the EU established a military Operations Center in Brussels, which last year conducted "a nine-day exercise involving the virtual deployment of 2,000 European soldiers to deal with a crisis in the fictional country of Alisia." The operational center, a Franco-German inspired project, is without a doubt a fledgling EU military headquarters that will eventually compete with the NATO command. The French proposal for an independent European defense structure will build upon the foundations laid by the new EU military HQ. If the United States agrees to the French plan, it will represent a further erosion of the supremacy of NATO in Europe. If the Bush administration does decide to endorse the French plan for rejoining NATO's command, agreeing to support an independent EU defense structure, it would represent a sea change in U.S. strategic thinking that would have a dramatic, negative impact on the future of the alliance.

It would shift the political balance of power within NATO away from Washington and London, and toward the main centers of power within the European Union: Paris, Berlin, and Brussels. Far from encouraging European countries from spending more on defense it would foster an even greater dependency culture within continental Europe upon NATO resources. It would lead to a duplication of the NATO command structure, without a doubling of manpower or material.

It is vital that both the U.S. and U.K. reject any French proposal that calls for American and British support for an independent European defense organization that would undermine the centrality of the NATO alliance. Paris should only be welcomed back into NATO's leadership club on terms that are acceptable to all NATO members. It is difficult to see how a greater EU defense capability will actually strengthen the NATO mission or the broader transatlantic alliance. As a supranational body, the European Union has frequently clashed with the United States over major foreign-policy questions, from Iraq, Iran, trade, and global warming, to America's overall handling of the global war against Islamist terrorism. Washington and Brussels are often oceans apart concerning some of the biggest issues of the day; encouraging a bigger military role for the EU can only make NATO's task more complicated. NATO has been the most successful postwar multilateral organization because it is a truly transatlantic defense and security alliance of independent nation states with a single command. The French proposal to build up a separate EU defense structure, which, in effect, would compete with NATO while eating away at valuable NATO resources, is simply unacceptable and should be firmly rejected.

Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, and Sally McNamara is senior policy analyst in European affairs, at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D. Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Sally McNamara Senior Policy Analyst, European Affairs

Related Issues: Foreign Aid and Development

First appeared in National Review Online