Saying Yes to France

By Ronald D. Asmus, executive director of the Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels. He was deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs from 1997 to 2000 (THE WASHINGTON POST, 29/10/07):

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated his willingness to bring France back into NATO. It is an offer the United States should not refuse. Earlier in my career, I was a hard-liner on France and NATO. In fact, when I stepped down from the State Department in 2000, the French ambassador to Washington was so relieved he toasted my departure at a European Union ambassadors' lunch because of my dogged pursuit of U.S. interests. (I considered it a back-handed compliment.)

But times change, and so should our thinking.

First, Sarkozy's opening to the United States and NATO is real and represents a critical shift in French thinking. He is the first French president in decades who likes America and does not seek to demonize for political purposes the U.S. capitalist system or our foreign policy. Since Charles de Gaulle, France has sought to maximize its influence in Europe by being the counterweight to America. Paris has always had, at least in theory, the option to maximize its influence by becoming a key interlocutor and broker of the terms of U.S.-European cooperation. This may be precisely what Sarkozy has in mind. He knows that the world is becoming more dangerous and that America and Europe need to face this century's problems together.

Second, both sides are paying a price for missing past opportunities to bury the hatchet. It is not widely known how close Washington and Paris came to a deal on NATO in the mid-1990s. In his first meeting with President Bill Clinton in 1995, President Jacques Chirac announced his willingness to bring France back to the alliance. American and French diplomats worked hard on a deal; the critical, final stumbling block was French representation in alliance command structures. Buried in the National Archives is a secret memo showing just how close Clinton and Chirac's national security advisers came to bridging the gap on this issue before the latter called, and subsequently lost, parliamentary elections, which ended this effort. What if over the past decade France had been in the core of the alliance? What if Chirac had continued to move closer to the United States instead of retreating back into Gaullist anti-Americanism? U.S.-European relations and the world would undoubtedly be better off.

Third, what America needs from Europe has fundamentally changed -- and having France on our side is more important than ever. Increasingly, the common challenges we face are outside European borders. The United States needs a strong and coherent Europe as a partner to project its influence around the world. Sarkozy and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, are trying to inject a greater moral component into French policy. This makes Paris an even more attractive partner. Much of that cooperation entails issues in which the European Union also is key. Thus, a French move toward NATO should be matched by a U.S. move toward a new and more strategic U.S.-E.U. relationship.

Fourth, if NATO is going to remain an effective military alliance capable of addressing the challenges of this century, it must break out of the military straightjacket Paris has traditionally sought to impose on it. Having just returned from a visit to NATO forces in Afghanistan, it is clear to me that the key to success is NATO's ability to work more closely with civilian reconstruction efforts, nongovernmental organizations, and development and aid groups. In Afghanistan, NATO could do everything right militarily and still lose the war -- because we don't have the right nexus between military power, development and governance. That kind of reorientation and transformation will be possible only if we end the ideological battles of the past and have France fully on board.

In the wake of the Bush administration's failings in Iraq and elsewhere, America's image in Europe is at an all-time low. While official relations have warmed, public estrangement from the United States has not budged one inch -- as public opinion studies, including the recent German Marshall Fund survey, have shown. Sarkozy is being strategically smart and politically courageous to buck this trend, but doing so is not without risk. And one can think of few things that would help America's image in Europe today more than a public embrace by Paris.

The French president is scheduled to visit Washington next month, and NATO will undoubtedly be discussed. There are good deals and bad ones. In the months ahead, American diplomats and soldiers will negotiate hard to achieve the former. But the conditions France has thus far laid out, while still vague, should be achievable if the political will and strategic imagination exists. Let's not miss this window of opportunity again.