France is considering rejoining the NATO alliance as a full member. The decision would not only enhance the alliance, but also subtly shift all European relations.
French Defense Minister Herve Morin said Sept. 14 that the time has come for France to clarify its role in the NATO alliance, noting that, "We are not getting the full benefit [of membership], notably in terms of influence and command posts." Earlier, Morin said, "We are too often those who quibble and speak gibberish, as if we wanted to give the idea that we want to stop NATO from evolving." Similar comments have originated from new French President Nicolas Sarkozy. No decision on the issue is yet public or final, but the French do seem to be sliding back toward full and formal NATO membership. France unilaterally changed its association with NATO some 40 years ago when then-President Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO's military planning committee and ordered NATO forces off French soil. The decision was rooted in de Gaulle's ideology, which asserted that France should be powerful enough to play an independent role in the international system. De Gaulle resented U.S. power and sought to play in the middle ground between the Soviet Union and the United States. That belief shaped all subsequent French policy, in particular the development of the European Union — that is, until earlier in 2007. Neither of the major presidential candidates in the 2007 presidential election — Sarkozy and Segolene Royal — were Gaullists. And the winner, Sarkozy, is about as pro-American as a Frenchman can be. He argues for, among other things, a deep constructive relationship with the United States that allows the two states to leverage each other's advantages. French experience and connections married to U.S. power and reach could form a hefty, mutually beneficial relationship — particularly in places of overlapping interest such as North Africa and the Levant. The French transformation translates into a number of shifts. First and most obvious, it would involve French participation at a deeper level in NATO operations. This will not have as meaningful of an impact as it seems at first glance. France is no slouch in supporting NATO operations already; it simply has liked to appear to be above the fray. Full membership would only mean that it could be sitting at the table at the handful of planning meetings it currently does not attend. Operational shifts will likely be minor. The real changes will come in the way that NATO interacts with its adversaries, most notably the Russians. Moscow has always viewed Paris as the hole in the Western wall, the player that Russia can use to worm its way past NATO. Sarkozy is certainly no Russophile, and a tighter France-NATO relationship will provide some glue to Europe that in the past has been sorely lacking. Finally, having France fully on board cannot help but expand Western options in dealing with problems. It is not so much that a French decision to rejoin completely would add one more member — although that would be significant in and of itself — but that it would re-add France. Let us be crystal clear on this point. Even though France seems about to become a bit more of a team player, its will still possess the star-player qualities — critics would say "prima donna" qualities — that is has long nurtured. As Sarkozy puts it, France will be an ally, not a servant. Though the alliance will need to develop some ego-management skills, this need not be a negative. France is a country that prides itself on independent, creative, savvy diplomacy and military action, and all of its skill and resources that have caused the past eight U.S. presidencies so much angst and anger would now be working alongside U.S. interests, instead of against them. That is certainly worth dealing with the aura francaise.