The government of France has concluded that its national security can best be served through active leadership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. We agree.
With the U.S. displaying increasing ambivalence toward the alliance, the evolving French position couldn’t come at a better time. France had kept its distance from NATO since President Charles De Gaulle pulled out of the alliance’s unified military command in 1966. De Gaulle argued that NATO was dominated by the U.S. and the U.K., and that France needed an independent defense policy to maintain its status as a great power. Subsequent French presidents from both the Gaullist and Socialist parties sought to build a European Union defense capability as a competitor to NATO, free of U.S. influence.
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision in 2009 to rejoin NATO’s military structure was the first indication that policy was changing. It now appears that Sarkozy has concluded that NATO is central to the future of France and Europe.
Sarkozy, along with Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, deserves enormous credit for leading NATO’s successful support for the rebels who overthrew the regime of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. Acting through NATO gave France access to U.S. capabilities such as air-to-air refueling, intelligence collection and long-range drones that the French and other European allies lack. NATO’s partnerships in the Middle East made it easier for nations such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to join the anti-Qaddafi coalition.
Ironically, it was President Barack Obama’s decision to cede leadership of the Libya operation to the French and British that showed the government in Paris that it could use NATO to achieve its goals, much as the U.S. has done in the past.
The new French view of NATO could have enormous consequences for the West’s ability to act in concert to defend common interests. In an era of declining military budgets, Europe can no longer afford to waste money building an EU defense structure that duplicates NATO’s capabilities. Greater French involvement will have the added benefit of strengthening the trans-Atlantic partnership.
Libya demonstrated that the most important U.S. national security relationship is with Europe. It’s worth remembering that when the United Nations authorized military action to prevent Qaddafi from massacring his people, the world turned to NATO, not the rising powers in Asia or elsewhere. From a U.S. perspective, the strengthening of Europe’s commitment to NATO is good news indeed.
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