At the upcoming [April 3-4] NATO summit in Strasbourg-Kehl, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to formally announce France's return to NATO's integrated military command, from which President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France in 1966.
The full reintegration of France into NATO, if confirmed, will remove an important irritant in U.S.-French relations and open up new possibilities for strengthening U.S.-European cooperation more broadly.
For France, rejoining would also mark a reversal of a tenant of Gaullist policy that has dominated French strategic thinking for 40 years. In actual fact, however, it will represent less a rupture with de Gaulle's policy than the culmination of a process of "creeping reintegration" that has been going on behind the scenes since the early 1990s.
The process began under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, who gave the green light for combined operations between French and NATO forces in the Bosnian crisis and increased French participation on a selective basis in meetings of NATO defense ministers and the Alliance's military Committee.
The quiet reintegration intensified under President Jacques Chirac, a committed Gaullist. Chirac came very close to achieving reintegration in 1996-'97. Indeed, had he been a bit more modest in formulating his conditions for France's return, his efforts might well have succeeded. However, Chirac's price for agreeing to France's return - taking European command of one of the two major NATO commands in the Mediterranean area (AFSOUTH in Naples) from the United States - was regarded by the Clinton administration as too high and the deal ultimately collapsed.
Behind the scenes, however, French cooperation with NATO on a practical level intensified. From a military, strategic, and operational point of view, by the end of Chirac's final years in office French cooperation with NATO had developed to the point where it was as if France were a de facto member of the integrated command.
Thus Sarkozy's decision to return France to NATO's integrated command represents not an abandonment of Gaullism, but rather an attempt to adapt it to France's changed strategic environment. With the end of the Cold War, France's decision to remain outside the NATO military structure made less and less political and military sense. It prevented France from exerting influence within the Alliance commensurate with its contribution to NATO military operations. At the same time, it sowed suspicion and distrust of French political ambitions and made it harder for France to gain support among its European allies for its broader foreign policy goals, such as strengthening a European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP).
Sarkozy's decision also reflects a recognition that France cannot achieve its broader foreign policy goals in Europe without a rapprochement with NATO and the United States. Indeed, NATO reintegration and ESDP are closely linked. Without a more favorable view toward NATO by France, the eastern European countries and Atlanticist members of the Alliance, above all Britain, are unlikely to support France's effort to strengthen ESDP.
Not everyone in France agrees. Socialist critics such as Louis Gautier, former defense advisor to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, and former Defense Minister Paul QuilÃ¨s have attacked the decision, arguing that it weakens France's commitment to European defense. Others such as former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, a close Chirac ally, have charged that the decision represents a one-sided concession for which France has received nothing in return.
These criticisms miss the mark. Contrary to the fears of French critics, France's reintegration does not signal the death knell of European defense efforts. Just the opposite. With France fully in the fold of NATO's integrated command, the United States will be more relaxed about the development of ESDP and less worried that it will develop into a rival of NATO. This will make it easier, not harder, for ESDP to advance.
Nor, in fact, has Sarkozy walked away empty-handed. The United States has reportedly agreed that France will be given responsibility for the Virginia-based Allied Command Transformation (ACT), which prepares the Alliance's long-term vision and doctrine, as well as the Alliance's command post in Lisbon, which is the headquarters for NATO's Rapid Reaction Force (NRF). Thus France's ability to influence Alliance decisions and doctrine will significantly increase and be more closely commensurate with its contribution to Alliance security.
Moreover, Sarkozy has insisted that France will maintain control over the deployment of French troops in all military operations; will not put its troops under NATO control in peacetime; and will retain national control of France's nuclear weapons. France thus preserves an important degree of national independence, particularly over its nuclear program.
France's reintegration does not mean that Washington and Paris will agree on all issues. But its return to the integrated command will strengthen NATO's capacity for crisis management and make differences easier to resolve.
F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.
This commentary originally appeared on GlobalSecurity.org on March 24, 2009. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.