When he first sat at the NATO summit table in Bucharest just a month ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy knew he was going to make history. By announcing a significant reinforcement of French forces in eastern Afghanistan and, more importantly, by signaling his intention to lead France back into NATO's integrated military command within a year, Sarkozy was breaking, in just a few hours, with no less than 42 years of French diplomatic history.
Candidate Sarkozy had promised a clean break with the French past, and here it was, striking at the most sensitive part of France's sovereignty—its independence from the U.S. and NATO. Marking a complete reversal of General de Gaulle's 1966 decision to leave NATO's command and expel NATO headquarters and all bases from French territory, Sarkozy's announcement was no less than a revolution for NATO and transatlantic relations.
Both moves, of course, were warmly welcomed in the U.S. and by many allies. NATO is not winning in Afghanistan. Some allies are reluctant to fight (like Germany), and most are tempted to cut their losses and leave (like Canada). Yet leaving would simply invite the Taliban back into Kabul, and increase the risk of a recreating a terrorist state at war with the world's democracies.
France's choice was therefore seen as a crucial step both politically and militarily, since French forces, reknowned for their expertise, are much needed. Bravely, Sarkozy decided to rescue NATO's operation, despite attacks from the Socialist opposition, by leaders who called him Bush's new poodle and accused him of dragging France into a new Vietnam.
Even more ambitious—and risky—was Sarkozy's decision to fully rejoin NATO. But there's a sound argument for the move. First, ever since the fall of the Berlin wall nearly 20 years ago, NATO is a totally different alliance. No one is threatening to invade Western Europe anymore, and no one is arguing about who should press the nuclear trigger to stop thousands of Soviet tanks. Thus much of the reason for France's non to NATO 40 years ago has vanished along with the U.S.S.R.
Second, today's threats arise from terror, proliferation and conflicts (many internal) waged outside Europe's borders, sometimes thousands of miles away, where NATO often acts on behalf of the United Nations, such as in Kosovo and Afganistan. That is why France has been one of the main contributors to such Alliance operations since the end of the cold war, with French generals actually taking command of NATO troops in the Balkans or in Kabul.
By announcing France's return to NATO's fold, Sarkozy is simply acknowledging a reality already well-known to military officers and diplomats, but one that previous French governments have failed to capitalize on, for fear of the domestic backlash.
Yet capitalizing on his NATO move is precisely what Sarkozy intends to do, both in Washington and in the European Union. By showing that France is America's trusted friend again, Sarkozy hopes to gain influence on American policy, and, in particular, on lifting the longtime U.S. veto on European defense.
Sarkozy knows that ever since 1954 and the failure of the European Defense Community (EDC), France has never been able to rally other Europeans to the idea of a European defense policy, for fear of antagonizing the United States, or weakening NATO. What Sarkozy expects from Washington in exchange for rejoining NATO is strong public support in favor of European defense cooperation, presumably led by himself, Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel.
The EU is the other forum where Sarkozy expects major returns for his NATO move. Starting July 1, France will hold the EU presidency, and Sarkozy hopes to obtain major progress on European defense. Having successfully fathered the Lisbon Treaty (with Merkel's help) and taken Europe out of a morass created by the failure of the French and Dutch referendums of 2005, Sarkozy hopes to consolidate his own leadership role by boosting European defense and diplomatic ambitions on the world stage. For this reason, Sarkozy has insisted publically again and again that France's return to NATO and EDC must go hand in hand. Sarkozy knows full well that he can sell NATO to the French only if he can show progress on the European front.
With this in mind, the key question—and the main risk for Sarkozy—is whether his partners on both sides of the Atlantic can be trusted to return the favor. If they leave him out in the cold, a year from now he'll be facing opponents on the left and right who will accuse him of selling French independence in exchange for nothing.
In this complicated gambit, the forecast, ironically, looks more promising on the other side of the Atlantic than it looks in Europe.
After years of devastating unilateralism and anti-European rhetoric, the Bush administration has given Sarkozy positive words on European defense. But what remains to be seen is whether the change is for real--and not just cosmetic—and more importantly whether it will be continued by the next administration. With his big announcement in Bucharest, Sarkozy is assuming that the United States will remain interested in NATO—and in France's involvement in leading NATO. But no one at this point knows who the next American president will be, or what she or he will do vis-à-vis NATO. Will America's war fatigue lead to retrenchement and isolation, more unilateralism, or to a new era of American multinational engagement?
And assuming America remains engaged, will the country still be focused on its "old" European allies, or will she be looking for new partners in the gulf or in Asia, such as India ?
The second major risk has to do with the Europeans themselves. One of the key reasons why Europeans have been essentially satisfied with the status quo (zero European defense, 100 percent U.S. leadership, and plenty of complaints about U.S. leadership) is precisely because this is the most comfortable and cheapest defense posture for "post-historic" societies.
Tired of their long history of warfare, today's European societies have given up on dreams of powers and largely prefer the role of chief commentator (and critic) of U.S. action, spending as little as possible on defense (usually less than 1 percent of GDP, compared with 3.5 percent in the U.S. and 2 percent in France and the U.K.). And when forced to send soldiers to dangerous places, the Europeans do their best to make sure they don't have to fight.
Sarkozy will hold the EU presidency for the second half of this year. By the end of the year, he will have succeeded—or failed—to convince the 26 other nations to take serious steps toward building a true defense community, not as a substitute but as a complement to NATO. Such steps could include a common objective of defense spending at around 2 percent of GDP, a joint European force of 60,000 soldiers from the six largest states (France, Britain, Italy, Poland, Germany, Spain) and a common policy on missile defense and antiterrorism tactics.
Even so, none of these proposals looks very likely these days. Let's hope that Sarkozy can succeed.