October 29, 2007

France Back In NATO?

With Nicolas Sarkozy at the helm of government, relations between the US and France have warmed considerably. Sarkozy has adopted the American position on Iran and now leads European efforts to demand accountability from Teheran on their nuclear program. Can a French return to NATO be far behind? Not according to Ronald Asmus, who oversaw a close-run attempt ten years ago:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated his willingness to bring France back into NATO. It is an offer the United States should not refuse. Earlier in my career, I was a hard-liner on France and NATO. In fact, when I stepped down from the State Department in 2000, the French ambassador to Washington was so relieved he toasted my departure at a European Union ambassadors' lunch because of my dogged pursuit of U.S. interests. (I considered it a back-handed compliment.)

But times change, and so should our thinking. ...

In the wake of the Bush administration's failings in Iraq and elsewhere, America's image in Europe is at an all-time low. While official relations have warmed, public estrangement from the United States has not budged one inch -- as public opinion studies, including the recent German Marshall Fund survey, have shown. Sarkozy is being strategically smart and politically courageous to buck this trend, but doing so is not without risk. And one can think of few things that would help America's image in Europe today more than a public embrace by Paris.

The French president is scheduled to visit Washington next month, and NATO will undoubtedly be discussed. There are good deals and bad ones. In the months ahead, American diplomats and soldiers will negotiate hard to achieve the former. But the conditions France has thus far laid out, while still vague, should be achievable if the political will and strategic imagination exists. Let's not miss this window of opportunity again.

Asmus lays out four reasons why he feels the time has arrived to get France back in NATO, but despite his self-professed "hard line" attitude, he still has some of this backward. NATO has survived and thrived without French participation for 40 years. In fact, the absence of the French have allowed us a less-complicated relationship with NATO and a far more cohesive NATO approach to conflicts -- and even the addition of a Sarkozy-led France will add more complications.

Asmus assumes that adding France to NATO will give America more support for its foreign policy. That would only be true if Sarkozy wants to act as a rubber stamp for American foreign policy. Otherwise, France would act as another hurdle to climb to get NATO action on any issue. How does a French contingent in NATO help support American foreign policy -- or does Asmus want a stronger French influence on our policy in order to make nice with the rest of Europe? He hints at this in this passage: "a French move toward NATO should be matched by a U.S. move toward a new and more strategic U.S.-E.U. relationship."

We have a problem with NATO (sans France) refusing to meet its obligations to the mission in Afghanistan. Even those nations contributing troops have preconditions that force the US, British, Canadians, and eastern Europeans to do most of the fighting. Will adding France to this mix make that situation better or worse? What does France add militarily to NATO? Asmus argues that an alliance with France could bring "the right nexus between military power, development and governance," without explaining why France is the sole resource for that nexus.

I don't oppose a French return to NATO, but the goal of such a partnership should be an improvement in the alliance. France suffers from the same problem as most of Europe in military terms, which is a lack of investment thanks to American projection of power during the Cold War. It seems that Asmus argues for a French return to policy demands while offering little in the way of actual military benefit. If France wants to start investing in its military strength to give value to a NATO contribution, then it sounds like a good deal. Otherwise, we have other ways to strengthen the friendship with France.


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