The debate on whether to return to Nato’s permanent command structure that has recently been unleashed in France—43 years after Charles de Gaulle pulled his country out—has impassioned its political class much more than the wider public.
The opposition has seized the opportunity to attack President Nicolas Sarkozy on an issue where his governing centre-right party happens to be divided. But if one goes beyond the political calculations and ideological reflexes of this debate and considers the long-term strategic implications, what is at stake?
In the first place common sense requires that an anachronism be eliminated and that the appropriate lessons be drawn from the fundamental changes happening in today’s world, in the US as well as in Europe. By remaining a member of Nato without taking part in its integrated military structure France has first and foremost penalised itself.
Precisely because the future of Nato’s strategy is at stake and legitimate questions must be raised about the choices to be made regarding Afghanistan, France should assume its responsibilities inside Nato and thereby increase Europe’s weight in redefining western strategy. Only from inside will France be able to assert its own interests.
But the developments in the international environment make a change of France's status inside Nato seem even more advisable, indeed necessary. The world has changed profoundly; the west is no longer as dominant as it has been for two centuries, either economically or in terms of strategic importance. The economic crisis, though global in nature, is accelerating the historic shift from the west to Asia.
Moreover, Europe’s primary problem is no longer to define itself as distinct from, if not at times in opposition to, the US. That is an obsolete mindset. Today’s challenge is to form a common front by asserting our values, not against others but in co-operation with them and in recognition of an emerging multi-polarity.
Since the election of Barack Obama as president of the US these changes have been accompanied by a revolution: not only has there been a big change in the image of America in the world but the behaviour of the US vis á vis its allies has changed even more radically. Though it is too early to know whether President Obama will succeed in reinvigorating the US economy, it is not too early to support his measures and efforts to relaunch multilateralism with strong action taken by our two countries.
The French population as well as the Germans—we remember the enthusiastic crowds that cheered him in Berlin—strongly support Mr Obama. France should seize the hand extended by America. Its return as a full member of Nato would constitute a strong symbolic and political act, sealing a historic reconciliation of two allies that are willing to put their common challenges above the quarrels and prejudices of the past.
Europe itself is changing before our eyes. There is no contradiction between the desire to advance European defence and to "normalise" France’s status inside Nato; on the contrary, France’s position thereby would come closer to that of Britain and Germany. A stronger France inside the alliance would strengthen the European defence effort. The return of France to Nato is not a guarantee of a successful European defence, but it certainly is a necessary precondition.
This becomes all the more true considering the new challenges facing Europe such as the return of Russia, now seeking a more powerful role in the international system. We should not allow Russia to exploit potential differences between Europe and Nato. But at the same time we must seek to open a dialogue with Russia on the necessary reopening of arms control negotiations in Europe, hopefully building a new partnership. These negotiations require strong and harmonised positions within Nato.
The authors of this article have devoted an important part of their lives to Franco-German rapprochement, which they consider to be a key to European unification. They regard the complete return of France to Nato as a logical step towards the European goal.
They are convinced that General de Gaulle, with his pragmatic and realist vision of the world and of a Europe based on the Franco-German relationship, would be shocked to hear that his name is evoked today to oppose an adjustment that he himself would have considered natural, given the profound changes that are happening in the world.