To what extent does French return to full NATO membership reflect a paradigm shift of French grand strategy?  After all, Charles de Gaulle’s withdrawal of French forces from NATO’s integrated military command (and his eviction of NATO headquarters from France) was the culmination of a fundamental policy reorientation begun in 1958 and a critical factor in strained relations with the United States that continued for decades. 

Can France’s return to NATO be merely an isolated decision? 

Why France Left NATO Command

De Gaulle was determined to create the conditions necessary for French national independence and a return to France’s status as a great power.  Affirmation of France’s status as a great power became an end in itself and France’s supreme interest.  That is not surprising; France’s status had been precarious since defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.  After 1945, France was tied down by the implacable logic of the Cold War, dependent on American military support via NATO, and immobilized by two colonial wars (Indochina and Algeria).  The Suez debacle of 1956 demonstrated France’s loss of independence.

To reassert France’s rank as a great power required creating stable political institutions with increased power for the executive, so that national power could be leveraged in the pursuit of foreign policy.  It also involved resolving the Algerian problem, restoring the military as a stable tool of the State, and creating a nuclear capacity.  De Gaulle incarnated the preeminence of foreign policy; domestic politics was a means to an end.  De Gaulle’s vision was similar to that of France’s other great leaders, Louis XIV and Napoleon, who embarked on a reform of the State to facilitate France’s exercise of global power.

De Gaulle believed it was unnatural for countries to suppress national interest in the name of Cold War ideology.  While recognizing the necessity of Atlantic cooperation—especially at times of genuine military tension—he anticipated (and encouraged) the breakdown of both Eastern and Western blocs, an end to the “Europe of Yalta” and a return to “normal” international conditions in which nations recovered their independence.

At the same time, de Gaulle was challenging the status quo in NATO.  Convinced that the alliance was being run as an Anglo-American condominium, de Gaulle wanted France to be an equal partner in a three party directory.  The United States was not prepared to accept de Gaulle’s demands.  Ultimately de Gaulle decided to pull French forces out of the NATO integrated military command, thereby poisoning the bilateral relationship. 

But even if the bi-polar political world turned into a multi-polar world, how would France retrieve its appropriate place?  There was a basic ambiguity in de Gaulle’s policies.  Was the goal national grandeur or was it necessary for France to operate within a European framework?  De Gaulle tried to have it both ways and failed.  Future French presidents were willing to make a “wager on Europe” in order to help create a Europe that would be a France writ large. 

What Changed?

After de Gaulle, French leaders developed a two track approach to security.  On the practical level, France worked with the United States and NATO to cope with major external threats like the USSR or international terrorism.  On the other hand, it sought a means of restoring French (or European) freedom of action.  With the end of the Cold War and the creation of the EU, the vision of an intergovernmental Europe pursuing its own interests in a multi-polar world became plausible.   An autonomous European security and defense force (ESDP) became the symbol of this aspiration.  In reality, there was always an uneasy balance between these two tracks.  France was a difficult but worthwhile ally of the United States.  When it came down to a crisis, like the Gulf War, the two countries found ways to cooperate.

What brought an end to this complex and ambivalent relationship was the confrontation over Iraq.  The Bush administration unilaterally pursued a mistaken strategic choice. At a given moment, Chirac dug in his heels and directly opposed the United States.  France enunciated its vision of a multi-polar world, but the term was not used descriptively, but prescriptively; it was an attempt to balance an America deemed too assertive and unilateral.   It was an attack against U.S. power per se.

The consequences were disastrous for all concerned.  The U.S. became embroiled in a long war which weakened its global position.  Iraq arguably brought to an end to America’s brief unipolar moment.  U.S. – French relations were crippled and the transatlantic relationship badly damaged.  The EU fractured over Iraq and the EU Constitution was a casualty.  Chirac’s brief moment of glory in 2003 contributed to the ignominious end of his presidency.
It is no surprise that the successors to Chirac and Bush both sought a “rupture” with the foreign policies of their predecessors. The conditions that underlay de Gaulle’s grand strategy no longer prevail.  France no longer faces an existential security threat, its independence has been restored and it has greater leaway for action through the EU.  The “Europe of Yalta” has vanished.  The U.S. is no longer hegemonic and the world is neither unipolar nor bipolar.

The Future of Franco-American Relations

The Obama administration is characterized by realism.  It recognizes the limits to America’s resources and the need to work cooperatively with allies to deal with a long list of global crises.  It no longer fears that ESDP will undermine NATO; ESDP and NATO are seen as compatible. The U.S. understands now that it is easier to work with a united Europe than with 27 countries.  Under these conditions, there was no reason why Sarkozy could not return to full NATO membership.   In the French policy establishment, many assert that there are no serious differences of opinion with the United States on global security and the mood seems to be one of pragmatism and cooperation.  Many of the factors which divided the U.S. and France had already been removed; the return to NATO was like the icing on the cake. So, to paraphrase T.S. Elliot, maybe this is the way the quarrel ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

If U.S. and French leaders—and officials—are able to cooperate, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  France is a key player in Europe—on foreign policy, perhaps the key player on the continent, and France can help engage Europe more actively on a common transatlantic agenda.  The French vision of global threats is very close to the American and if the Conservatives win the next British elections, the UK’s role as bridge between the U.S. and Europe will be at risk, making the U.S. French relationship all the more important.

Europe’s willingness to act globally—and its hard power capacity to do so—have declined at a time when the U.S. is conscious of being overextended.  French efforts at promoting more European involvement in international security, both through hard and soft power, will surely be welcomed in Washington.  Of course, given the long record of tensions between the two countries, the importance of tact cannot be overstated.  But the fact that world is becoming multi-polar constitutes a compelling argument for a closer relationship between two countries whose values and interests are remarkably similar.   

Dr. Steven Philip Kramer is Professor of National Security Studies in the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at the National Defense University.