PARIS — What will be the consequences of France’s return — announced by President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday — to the integrated military structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?

NATO allies are quietly satisfied, but nobody expects major changes in France’s military contribution. In the last 10 years, it has been on par with the other major European allies. The reason is simple: Since France’s return to the Military Committee in 1994, its position within NATO has allowed for full participation in the alliance’s military and political activities.

In Paris, the move has not in itself raised major political opposition for two main reasons. First, nobody disputes the obvious: Since Charles de Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from the military organization more than 40 years ago, the alliance and the world have changed profoundly. Today’s global threats demand greater European as well as NATO solidarity, and the alliance’s successive enlargements mean that most EU members are now NATO members as well.

Second, the whole notion of “integration” is completely different from de Gaulle’s day. When the Warsaw Pact existed, NATO troops were positioned in such a way that any attack would collectively involve most of the allies. The whole central front was tightly coordinated, and even France was involved in NATO planning through a set of special agreements.

The Cold War’s end and the subsequent transformation of NATO into an “expeditionary alliance” have made “integration” largely irrelevant. Each member’s contribution to NATO operations is decided by individual members ad hoc on the basis of consensus.

This profound change in NATO’s role has been matched by a parallel rise in France’s role within the alliance. On the military level, it is worth recalling that France’s participation in NATO-led operations has been quite high since the 1999 Kosovo campaign. On average, between 2,000 and 3,000 French soldiers have been involved at any given moment, making France either the third- or fifth-largest contributor, depending on the year. Of 12,000 French soldiers deployed abroad this year, roughly 30 percent have been serving with NATO, with 2,000 troops in Kosovo and more than 3,000 in and around Afghanistan. In Paris there is a widely shared view that complementarity between the European defense project and NATO is both a major challenge and a worthy goal.

As Sarkozy has put it, France’s return to a full role in NATO should allay fears expressed by members in Central Europe. The idea that France has been attempting to create an alternative to NATO through the European defense project is an old and stupid canard, but that has never prevented many from believing it.

France shares the wide consensus among allies on the need to renovate the trans-Atlantic relationship and the alliance itself. A new trans-Atlantic relationship should involve both the alliance and the European Union, making explicit reference to the further consolidation of the common European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP).

President George W. Bush’s positive declaration about ESDP at NATO’s Bucharest summit in 2008 was a welcome sign that the dispute about whether NATO should continue to maintain a monopoly on European security issues is behind us.

NATO itself should also undertake a long-delayed transformation. So far, there has been more talk than action. Almost everyone recognizes that the present structure of NATO is obese and outdated. Given the national interests involved, it will continue to be a difficult process, but given the pressures on military budgets, the political context has never been more favorable.

France’s new attitude toward NATO is therefore designed to be a contribution to achieving these twin objectives. It is a means to reform the trans-Atlantic relationship and NATO rather than an end in itself.

France’s own strategic approach stresses that its forces must adapt further to new dimensions of military operations overseas and to asymmetrical warfare. French forces will maintain a robust capacity for overseas military operations within the framework of NATO-led operations, but not exclusively so.

Hence, the commitment undertaken in France’s new military financial law to undertake major investments in force protection and intelligence, as well as recognition of the urgent need to close the gap between European forces on strategic transportation and tactical air mobility. This requires, despite the current economic crisis, maintaining substantial military investment and a much greater degree of intra-European cooperation.

The International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan has more than confirmed the importance of better coordination of civilian and military activities in stabilization and reconstruction, an area where the EU has a major role to play, because it has already begun to develop the necessary tools. There is no need for NATO to duplicate those functions; instead, it must learn to cooperate more closely with them.

Benoit d’Aboville was France’s ambassador to NATO from 2002-2005 and later a member of the National Commission of the “Livre Blanc sur la Defense et la Securite Nationale.” © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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