France's military about-face
President Sarkozy wants to rejoin NATO's military command, a welcome move.
He may not have de Gaulle's physical stature, but President Nicolas Sarkozy is standing up to Le Général's long-obeyed policy of military independence for France. The US and Europe need to welcome this historic shift.
The kinetic French leader isn't talking about giving up control of the country's nukes (a legacy from President Charles de Gaulle). And he will still keep a firm grip on armed forces, which are Europe's largest (255,000 in active service).
But as part of his campaign promise of "rupture" with status-quo policies, Mr. Sarkozy wants France to rejoin NATO's military command and planning structure, which de Gaulle quit in 1966.
Although Le Grand Charles still kept France as a member of NATO – and indeed, France is an important contributor to NATO and global peacekeeping missions – de Gaulle's move was a highly visible way for Paris to assert autonomy in the face of US dominance of the alliance.
But Sarkozy sees things differently now, and not just because he vacations in the US. He's shifting toward defense integration – a direction he also wants for a parallel but Europe-only military alliance. He recognizes that in today's interconnected world, it's not easy to solve problems solo, no matter how enduring the myth of French might and glory.
Washington couldn't be more pleased, and rightly so. Friends can have differences – and certainly France wasn't the only US ally to object to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But years of Paris poking its finger in Uncle Sam's chest have made cooperation unnecessarily difficult.
The review puts jihadist-inspired terrorism and Iran as top threats. It defines security risks broadly, including cyberattacks and environmental disasters. It emphasizes investment in intelligence (including satellites and drones). And it pushes "force modernization" – light forces that are easily deployable. It also doesn't forget hardware. Sarkozy complains that refueling planes are 45 years old.
But what happens when the tank track meets the dirt road and Sarkozy tries to implement his plan? What will parliament, which will discuss it in July, think of his proposals to pay for it by reducing troops and closing bases? Americans know first hand this costs money and political capital.
French generals and senior officers are resisting. A group of them wrote a full-page newspaper commentary decrying the plan as reducing France's military might and as incoherent. Indeed, a valid question for Britain, France, and the US is whether the emphasis on light, quick-deploy forces makes sense when Europeans and Americans have long-term commitments in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Generally, Sarkozy's plan, as well as his sending 700 more troops to Afghanistan, is encouraging. His commitment to defense spending that's inflation-proof and actually increases over time should serve as a model for European countries that show no will to fall-in behind bigger defense budgets.
But Sarkozy will have to work hard to turn his white paper into reality. If he succeeds, he'll help prepare France – and its allies – for the next 40 years.