Judy Dempsey, IHT’s Berlin bureau chief, argues that Nicolas Sarkozy is making a play to bolster an independent European defensive alliance.


By making the decision for France to play a full role in NATO, Sarkozy is trying to end decades of suspicion that have hampered NATO and paralyzed European defense efforts.

Under his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, France and Turkey became scapegoats for other NATO and European Union countries to hide their own divisions over defense policy.  Turkey, which is a leading NATO member but is not in the EU, has prevented NATO from forging closer ties with the EU, partly as leverage in its negotiations to join the bloc. At EU headquarters, France has often blocked the EU from working more closely with NATO, suspicious that Europe’s defense ambitions would be reined in by the United States.

Sarkozy wants to end these tensions. They have been debilitating for both organizations, which have scant resources and can ill afford duplicating efforts, troops and equipment. As a bloc, the Europeans have not been prepared to take their defense and security policy seriously. Several countries are suspicious of France’s long term agenda.   Rejoining NATO’s integrated military structure, which would finally give France a full say in military issues, might just end those suspicions. “Sarkozy realizes that the EU cannot develop until the suspicions of France go away,” said Henning Riecke, a security specialist at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

The problem with this, Dempsey notes, is that France is virtually alone in the ambition for a distinct European defense.

[M]ost of Europe has no stomach for tough missions like Afghanistan. It has not supported France in playing a bigger role in Africa. The Europeans do not want to spend more on defense, especially given the global financial crisis. Above all, there is no strategic thinking about what defense and security role the EU should have.

This strikes me as exactly right.  NATO has long given cover to Europe’s great powers to underspend on defense, since the United States could always be counted upon to vastly overspend.  And, whatever Sarkozy’s ambitions might be, even France isn’t going to spend enough to make Continental Europe an independent counterweight.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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