French defense minister Herve Morin signaled that his country will attempt to be a counterweight to the United States now that it rejoined the NATO military command. In addition to reiterating that France will not send more troops to Afghanistan, it will oppose a “global NATO” and insist on a Russian veto over further eastward expansion.
“This step is designed so that we find our full place in the decision-making,” he told The Associated Press from under 17th-century portraits in his sun-dappled Paris office. “We are actors, and we want to write the script.”
France’s return has come with conditions: It wants to give Europe a greater say in NATO policymaking, and dispel concerns that its plans to build a European Union defense force would compete with NATO. “We had a lot of trouble in advancing European defense because our European partners read into it that we had the idea — often unfounded — to weaken the Atlantic alliance,” Morin said.
Morin said France believes that NATO must remain “first a collective security pact. Today, it’s an instrument of peacekeeping and security — it’s that above all.”
“The renovation of the strategic concept, the renovation of the alliance’s missions, must not lead, in our view, to a NATO that would become a ‘global NATO’,” he said. U.S. officials — and to a lesser extent, other member states — have in the past mentioned the term “global NATO” with a view toward increasing its operational zone and partnerships, alliance spokesman James Appathurai said. Critics fear that could create a rival for global tasks better suited for the United Nations.
Morin said France also believes Moscow must be consulted before any further expansion of the alliance, which the former Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine have been looking to join. “These are things that cannot be decided without speaking to our Russian neighbor,” Morin said. “(Europe’s) security architecture must be built with Russia.”
The idea of a Russian veto on expansion is anathema to both the United States and the Eastern European allies. It is, however, already a reality despite strong rhetoric coming from NATO to the contrary.
In a companion analysis piece, AP’s Jamey Keaten argues, “France’s rejection of a global role for NATO puts Paris on a collision course with the bolder NATO ambitions of other powerful alliance members — most notably the United States and Britain.”
Morin’s message could be especially relevant to Ivo Daalder, President Obama’s nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to NATO, who has written favorably about a “global NATO” and has criticized France’s and Germany’s deference to Russia on possible alliance expansion.
Analyst Francois Heisbourg said “global NATO” is a confusing term. Some say it’s about increasing membership beyond Europe and North America, which could be legally tricky given U.N.’s and the alliance’s own rules. Others read it as a call for a broader geographic range of military troubleshooting, he said. “What is a problem is a global NATO open to membership outside of Europe and North America, like Japan or Australia or whatever; the notion that this becomes the West against the rest,” said Heisbourg, who heads the French state-funded Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
France, which both coined the term bureaucracy and invented the concept, might bring that expertise to bear:
“France perceives NATO HQ to be a top heavy institution, with the number of staff operating civilian tasks disproportionately to those available to perform military duties,” Alastair Cameron of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute wrote in a paper last month. “If carried out successfully, France’s reintegration should constitute an important landmark in the reform process” at NATO, he wrote.
And, naturally, France’s heightened role will not do much to repair a sense within Britain that the “special relationship” with the United States has weakened with the Obama administration.
Regardless, as Ken Weisbrode has pointed out, France never left NATO and has always been a powerful player. To the extent that having the Alliance’s fourth largest contributor even more integrated into the decision-making makes it harder to achieve consensus, it’s probably a good thing. We celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this year and will soon do the same for the end of the Cold War. It’s high time NATO figured out its new mission.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.