If ever there was a time for the United States to lead NATO in a new direction, this is it. But it could be France, not the United States, that guides NATO into the future.
President Obama plans to deliver a speech in France on transatlantic relations early this month. It will be the first statement of U.S. policy toward NATO heard from this administration. Yet behind the rhetoric extolling multilateralism the reality is that while France is rejoining military NATO, the United States is becoming more distant. This may be the best way the United States can lead the Alliance.
In March 1966, Lyndon Johnson received a handwritten note. In it, President Charles de Gaulle announced France would no longer participate in NATO’s integrated command and that NATO military headquarters and U.S. personnel could no longer be based on French territory. De Gaulle was dismayed that the major European powers continued to rely on America to decide how Europe should defend itself.
Johnson reacted calmly to de Gaulle’s announcement. Ignoring the advice of esteemed Cold Warriors such as the former secretary of state, Dean Acheson, he resisted taking punitive measures against France and suppressed the kind of “freedom fries” vitriol 21st-century disputes between France and the United States have inspired. LBJ re-engaged in NATO by giving America’s allies the initiative to reform NATO without France. De Gaulle’s shock treatment served NATO well by forcing the United States to reconsider what it wanted from the alliance.
Forty-three years later President Nicolas Sarkozy is pushing to reintegrate France into NATO’s military command. Sarkozy has accurately pointed out that it makes no sense to have French troops fighting for NATO if France is not prepared to supply French officers to the NATO command structure. He is trying to move France closer to the United States but also to push Europe to think harder about what it wants from NATO.
French and American approaches to the role of NATO show why the organization will become increasingly European. The war in Afghanistan, in which NATO has participated, is set to become more Americanized. France does not want a global NATO but one that focuses on defending European interests. The French,along with Germany, will thwart American efforts to expand NATO membership. The United States will be left with bilateral defense agreements with Georgia and the Ukraine.
Obama should capitalize on the present U.S. drift from NATO and the new French proximity. But the absence of an enthusiastic U.S. response to Sarkozy’s move shows the absence of any American conviction that NATO matters. It’s important that the US responds in a constructive way to the French return. Rather than indulge in lukewarm rhetoric, Obama should administer some shock treatment of his own and praise NATO’s potential as a European alliance.
The problem remains that Europe is woefully incapable, as de Gaulle predicted, of undertaking military operations without U.S. help. Sarkozy has emphasized the French contribution to NATO. Now, France needs to demonstrate how Europe can make NATO work as a European alliance, cooperating with the United States without relying on it.
The French are rumored to be taking over two important NATO commands, Allied Command Transformation (ACT) in Norfolk, Va., and the Joint Command Lisbon. Whether the rest of Europe likes it or not, Obama is giving Sarkozy the opportunity to spearhead NATO reform.
De Gaulle always had a long-term vision, even when he didn’t have the means. The current economic crisis means that increasing defense budgets immediately is impossible. But NATO needs to invest in ideas for the future, decide on its priorities and begin to allocate political and military means accordingly. Since the Cold War ended, the alliance has muddled through on everything from operational commitments and strategic priorities to expanding its membership. NATO needs leadership, and the United States has neither the time nor the energy to provide it.
The United States will not withdraw from NATO, but Obama will increasingly work with the organization rather than from within it. Sarkozy may not have a clear strategy or the backing of other European states, but he now has greater capacity to make an impact if he chooses.
Policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic have dismissed the French return as symbolic: the French, it is often repeated, never left the Atlantic Alliance and Sarkozy’s move is simply formal recognition of reality. Dismissing the French return in this way ignores the possibilities change offers. Obama, of all people, should know this.
Charles de Gaulle recognized that symbolic acts can have important political and military repercussions. Obama should follow de Gaulle and recognize that sometimes stepping back is the best way to move forward. The welcome-back party for France at NATO’s 60th anniversary should avoid talk of the past and focus on NATO as a European alliance for the future.
Carolyne V. Davidson is a writer for the History News Service and a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale University. Her dissertation is entitled, "Dealing with de Gaulle: France, the United States and NATO, 1958-1970."