France to Rejoin NATO Military Command

All signs point to France rejoining NATO’s military structure more than forty years after declaring its independence and kicking the alliance headquarters out of Paris. Norman Polmar provides some background:

France is expected to soon rejoin NATO’s military command after a 40-year absence. The French government withdrew from the NATO military structure in 1966 (although remaining a member of NATO’s political-policy structure). France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has placed strong emphasis on France’s relationship with the United States. And, he recently declared that he would soon undertake “very strong” initiatives on European defense and give France “its full place” in NATO. Subsequently, Defense Minister Herve Morin said that he was “convinced that European defense will make no progress unless France changes its political behavior within NATO.”

It’s important to recall that, despite notable differences, France has remained a NATO ally:

Despite having withdrawn from the NATO military structure, French naval forces conducted bilateral exercises with other NATO navies, including the U.S. Navy. And, certain U.S.-French weapon agreements were undertaken, especially for upgrading American-built tanker aircraft and ship-launched missiles. The French joined other NATO forces in the Bosnia conflict as well as the 1991 assault on Iraq to free Kuwait, which Iraqi forces had taken over the previous summer.

Although the previous French government was not supportive of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the French did send forces to Afghanistan. However, earlier this year France withdrew its 200-strong special forces from Afghanistan; those ground troops were participating in the U.S anti-terror operation code-named Enduring Freedom. The then-Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said, “There is a general reorganization of our [troops].” However, the 1,100 French troops engaged in the separate, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force remain in Afghanistan.

U.S. forces have also worked with French forces in Djibouti in northeast Africa. (Djibouti is a small, impoverished republic just north of the Horn of Africa on the strait of Bab el-Mandeb. It is bordered by Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea, an area of great political and economic turmoil.) The United States has used the French military-air base in Djibouti for several combat and support operations in the region. Indeed, the case can be made that—despite its public stance—the French have been most helpful to several U.S. military activities.

Still, full integration is not only a positive step for Transatlantic relations but significant militarily. And it serves French interests, too, as Denis MacShane explains:

[I]t is hard to see how a sovereign, French-alone geopolitics has helped advance French national interests or made the world safer.

Mitterrand was unable to shape an effective Balkans politics despite huge public pressure in France to stop the Serb siege of Sarajevo and killings of Catholic and Muslim opponents. In the end it was American air power and the ruthless application of Nato military-political diplomacy that stabilised the Balkans.

Jacques Chirac believed he had the magic touch with Arab leaders, whom he endlessly courted. But French soldiers are now bogged down in Lebanon and Afghanistan, unable to move and unwilling to fight. Despite the grand noise of sending French troops to Lebanon after the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah, France has been unable to prevent the flow of arms from Iran and Syria into Lebanon as Islamist forces prepare for another assault on Jews living in Israel.

While the rest of Europe, starting with socialist Spain in the 1980s and followed by post-communist Europe a decade later, scrambled to join the organisation, France maintained its Gaullist indifference to a Nato that was searching for a new role.

Russian officers now work at Nato headquarters in Brussels and Russian MPs outnumber French politicians at the important Nato parliamentary assembly meetings, where top US generals explain their thinking to and take hard questions from European and North American policy-makers.

In the 1960s, America was the supreme military power outside the communist bloc. Today, America is a wounded beast. Its soldiers are surrounded by a growing Islamist enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan. America’s leaders are looked upon with dismay by pro-Americans and with open contempt by much of the political class in Europe.

While many Europeans hanker after the pleasure of soft power, the enemies of democracy have no compunction about using hard power.

Germany is the strongest defender of soft power and refuses to allow her soldiers to do any fighting in Afghanistan. Yet the arrest of German citizens trained by al-Qa’eda in Pakistan and ready to kill fellow Germans en masse shows that for jihadists, Frankfurt is as much a target as London or Madrid. The lack of success of the occupation policies in Iraq is not appeasing Islamist armed violence. The former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, called fundamentalist jihadi politics “the new totalitarianism”.

The democracies failed in the 1930s to arm themselves against fascism. After 1945, the lessons were learnt. Nato sent an unmistakable message to Stalinist ideology that on the armed front democracy would defend itself.

De Gaulle had the luxury of pulling France out of Nato because the alliance had already stabilised Europe. Is the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, prepared to be as bold as de Gaulle and say the time has come for France to re-enter Nato? It would send the clearest signal possible to the enemies of democracy that the new totalitarianism, to use Fischer’s words, will not pass.

The Cabinet minister Ed Balls has rightly argued in a report just published that Palestinians need economic development. So does every part of the Arab and Muslim world from Morocco to Pakistan.
But economic development will not take place without a defeat of jihadi terrorism. That needs harder power. Nato with France reintegrated can shape a European dimension to a new security policy aimed at helping the elected governments of Afghanistan, Lebanon, and in due course, Pakistan – even Iraq – to defeat their external enemies.

France outside Nato makes the concept of a common European defence policy difficult – if not impossible. France in Nato can take the lead, with Britain, in the long overdue rationalisation of Europe’s military policy, profile and procurement.


No European nation can alone exercise effective military puissance. A new Nato and a new integrated military unity in Europe would send the enemies of democracy a clear message that they will not win.

While the United Nations Security Council remains the preferred vehicle for collective security, for a whole host of reasons, the requirement for unanimity among its Permanent Members, including authoritarian Russia and China, almost always takes that option off the table. Despite its divisions — especially given its rapid membership expansion — NATO is a far more wieldable tool. The full participation of France would make it a more viable one.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Democracy, Europe, Military Affairs, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Wayne says:

    Maybe, maybe not. If France becomes an antagonist in NATO then they can do more harm then good. They may have a large European Military and population base but I wouldn’t rely on them. I simply don’t trust them.

  2. Michael says:

    You do realize that France’s newly elected President is far more conservative (in the US sense) than Chirac, and much more in line with US foreign policy, don’t you? I think it’s safe to bring back the name french fries now.

  3. Wayne says:

    France’s newly elected President has said they right things so far and has taken political hits at home for doing so. However, talk is cheap. I will wait and see if their actions back up their talk.

    I personally thought the freedom fries deal was silly from the get go although the anger at the French was justified.

  4. Bithead says:

    The full participation of France would make it a more viable one.

    Very true. I regard it as a measure of how much the international position of France has changed for the better, following the most recent election. It strikes me that if we are somehow stupid enough to put Hillary Clinton into the White House, that France will have a more realistic international policy than the United States . Certainly, the situation which no one could have predicted four years ago. and so, to address James’ second point, it is in fact a more wieldable weapon. But wieldable by whom, and to what end? Most certainly that is one of the things that is dependent on the outcome of the next election here in the states.

  5. Grewgills says:

    I personally thought the freedom fries deal was silly from the get go although the anger at the French was justified.

    And the anger at France was also silly.