Nile Gardiner, a former researcher for Margaret Thatcher who heads up a center named in her honor at Heritage Foundation, writes in the Telegraph that “The French do not deserve a command role in NATO.”  He calls the news that French general Stéphane Abrial will be head Allied Command Transformation “a further weakening of the Anglo-American Special Relationship.”

He rightly notes that “There is not one Briton in charge of any of the big five supreme commands and operational commands in NATO, despite the fact that after the United States the UK is the biggest contributor of combat troops to the alliance.” He argues that this was a sop to the Sarkozy government to reintegrate France into NATO’s command that will yield “Nothing at all, frankly.”

This won’t result in a significant increase in French troops in Afghanistan for example, nor will it prompt a Gallic surge in war-fighting on the battlefields. While Britain has sacrificed more than 210 troops in the Afghan campaign (more than the entire number lost by the remainder of Europe), France has suffered the loss of just 29 soldiers. There are currently 9,000 British servicemen in Afghanistan compared to 3,160 from France.

Back in February, when this deal was being finalized, I made much the same argument, calling the additional 800 French officers added to the command structure “purely symbolic” and urging that “If France wants a big boy seat in the Alliance, it should at a bare minimum actually spent the 2 percent of its GDP on defense that NATO’s bylaws require.”

Further, one sympathizes with the Brits here. Their fealty to NATO and willingness to shoulder the burden is being taken for granted while France is essentially being rewarded for having left in a tiff decades earlier.

My strong preference would have been to have made French command of ACT a one-time rotation, to be continued only if Paris met certain milestones in terms of Alliance support.  There’s not much incentive under the current arrangement. It has a slightly higher GDP and slightly higher population that the UK; it should contribute just as much money and manpower to NATO missions. (Of course, Germany is well ahead of both countries in both GDP and population while lagging even France in its contribution.)

Still, there is at least some reason for optimism that France will assume its proper role. French Chief of Defense General Jean-Louis Georgelin, visiting the Atlantic Council this morning, noted that his country was increasing its defense spending and proclaimed that we can no one can ignore the asymmetry of US and allied capabilities and effort in Afghanistan and that it was imperative for Europe to do more.    At the same time, though, he acknowledged that political and fiscal realities limited how much could be done.

Time will tell whether France taking over one of the prestige NATO commands leads to greater French commitment to picking up the burdens of membership.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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