The Obama Administration has announced it will back the full
reintegration of France into the NATO command structure, with
French officers reportedly in line to take two senior Alliance
command positions: Allied Command Transformation (one of NATO's two
supreme commands, based in Norfolk, Virginia) and Joint Command
Lisbon (one of NATO's three main operations headquarters, which
also commands the NATO Rapid Reaction Force).
This is a highly significant development that would put France
at the heart of NATO military planning and reform proposals and
represents an ill-thought-out and risky concession by Washington to
the Sarkozy administration.
In a major speech at the Munich Security Conference on February
Vice President Joe Biden welcomed France's decision "to fully
participate in NATO structures" and also made it clear that the
United States will "support the further strengthening of European
defense, an increased role for the European Union in preserving
peace and security, [and] a fundamentally stronger NATO-EU
partnership." Biden's remarks echoed the views of British Defence
Secretary John Hutton, who recklessly backed French plans for a
European Union army last October.
Both the United States and Great Britain must take a step back
and launch a fundamental, wide-ranging review of the long-term
implications of French demands for the future of NATO. The U.S.
Congress should hold hearings to assess the new Administration's
strategy with regard to French reintegration in order to highlight
any dangers posed to U.S. interests.
It would be a huge strategic error of judgment by the new U.S.
Administration and the British government to continue supporting
French ambitions for restructuring Europe's security architecture.
Such acquiescence would hand Paris an extraordinary degree of power
and influence within NATO--power and influence well out of
proportion to France's actual military role in Alliance
Providing France with such influence would also ultimately
weaken the Anglo-American Special Relationship, shifting power away
from Washington and London and toward continental Europe while
paving the way for the development of a separate European Union
defense identity--all of which will undermine NATO.
French Reintegration into NATO
When President Sarkozy first floated the idea of French
reintegration into NATO's military command in June 2007, he
outlined two preconditions: guaranteed senior command posts for
French officers within the Alliance, and American endorsement of an
increased EU defense identity (the latter of which he emphasized as
the more important of the two). To formally establish the
principle of reintegration, Sarkozy commissioned an influential
"White Paper on Defense and National Security," which was published
in March 2008.
Designed to promote an independent European defense identity,
the French White Paper on Defense and National Security clearly
The European ambition stands as a priority. Making the
European Union a major player in crisis management and
international security is one of the central tenets of our security
policy. France wants Europe to be equipped with the corresponding
military and civilian capability.
The paper endorses several key principles:
- Redefinition of responsibility-sharing between America and
- An explicit rejection of the idea that the EU act as a civilian
complement to NATO; and
- A strong preference for buying European defense
In June 2008, President Sarkozy circulated an additional
document outlining Paris's policy initiatives for European military
integration. It presents the major elements of what an EU defense
identity will entail, including:
- A permanent operation headquarters in Brussels;
- Common EU funding for military operations; and
- European exchange programs for military personnel.
America Has Little to Gain--and a Lot
It is likely that the Obama Administration will regard France's
reintegration into NATO as a diplomatic masterstroke. The
Administration will claim that it has rebuilt the Franco-American
relationship in a mutually beneficial way, and Sarkozy will in turn
claim that it tangibly demonstrates France's commitment to standing
However, the Administration must ask itself what the U.S.
actually gains from such a quid pro quo. Such reintegration may
extract a few hundred additional French troops for eastern
Afghanistan and generate stronger French public support for the
Afghan mission. But President Obama will find that he has rescued
the furniture only to give away the house. Not only is France
already able to commit as many troops as it wishes to NATO missions
(as it proved last year when 700 additional French troops were sent
to Afghanistan), but 10 years of EU security initiatives have
actually seen a decrease in European defense spending.
Washington continues to argue that supporting the European
Security and Defense Policy is a means toward improving European
defense spending and military capabilities. But after 10 years,
such improvement has yet to occur and is not reflected in the
projected defense budgets of any major European power. Since the EU
and NATO operate in the same areas both militarily and
geographically, the competition for resources will become fiercer,
and Washington is likely to see its requests for military help
increasingly rebuffed as France demands European commitments to EU
missions. Once the United States gives its blessing
to the creation of a separate European defense structure, it will
have no grounds to compel Europe to choose NATO over EU requests in
A Parisian Power Play
Rather than genuinely attempting to increase Europe's
contribution to defense on the international stage, France is
seeking to expand both Paris's and the EU's power base. Sarkozy's
proposal is largely political, not military. In practice, France is
already involved with almost all of NATO's structures and
operations, including all political bodies and the NATO Response
Force. It also partakes in joint training exercises.
French reintegration into NATO command structures offers little
additional value to Washington but gives immense momentum to French
ambitions for an autonomous EU foreign and defense policy. When
French presidents talk about European foreign policy, they more
often than not mean French foreign policy. Equally, when Sarkozy
talks about increasing European security capabilities, he means
decreasing American involvement in Europe.
For instance, in January 2007 the EU established a military
operations center in Brussels, which later that 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 is without doubt a
fledgling EU military headquarters that duplicates and will
eventually compete with the NATO command.
The French proposal for an independent European defense
structure will build upon the foundations laid by this new EU
military headquarters. If the United States agrees to the French
plan, it will represent yet another reversal of the Berlin Plus
arrangements and a further erosion of the supremacy of NATO in
No Quid Pro Quo with France
If the Obama Administration agrees to support an independent EU
defense structure as part of the French plan for rejoining NATO's
command, such backing would represent a major transformation 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 toward the
main centers of power within the European Union: Paris, Berlin, and
Brussels. Far from encouraging European countries to spend more on
defense, it would foster an even greater dependency culture within
continental Europe upon NATO resources. Such a shift would also
lead to a duplication of the NATO command structure without a
doubling of manpower or materiel.
It is vital that both the U.S. and U.K. reject any French
proposal predicated on American and British support for an
independent European defense organization. Paris should be welcomed
back into NATO's leadership club only on terms that are acceptable
to all NATO members, and without the doling out of powerful command
positions to a country that is at best a half-hearted member of the
It is difficult to see how a greater EU defense capability will
actually strengthen the NATO mission or the broader transatlantic
alliance. Indeed, encouraging a bigger military role for the EU can
only make NATO's task more complicated.
NATO has been the most successful post-war multilateral
organization precisely 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--i.e., a competitor to NATO sucking up valuable NATO
resources--is simply unacceptable and should be firmly
Nile Gardiner Ph.D. is the
Director of, and Sally
McNamara is Senior Policy Analyst in European Affairs in, the
Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.
Erica Munkwitz assisted with research for this paper.