Despite Concerns, France Can Play an Important Role in NATO’s Future
PARIS—Paris is not holding its breath for the upcoming NATO Summit in Newport, Wales. France’s traditional ambivalence towards NATO, which still informs its thinking about the Alliance, means that its expectations remain measured. The possible outcomes of the summit do little to address the major security challenges France faces today, which are mostly in North Africa and the Sahel region.
Nonetheless, as a major European power on foreign affairs, France cannot afford to let the opportunity of these discussions slip by. This summit should be a venue for France to affirm and showcase the leadership it has demonstrated through various military operations over the past five years. It can do so by driving strong ideas for the future of NATO in light of the existing challenges in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and NATO’s ongoing transformation after the end of operations in Afghanistan. France also has the legitimacy to leverage German support, which it already did at the December 2013 European Council meeting, in order to provide European NATO with an even stronger core. This is needed today, more than ever, and will help foster the idea of a European reassurance package to NATO members who feel under severe threat.
France should also lead the way in laying out the basis for better coordination between NATO and the European Union. French foreign policy has often been carried out under EU frameworks, as shown by the operations in Mali and the Central African Republic. Besides sending fighter jets to the Baltic states to reassure allies in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, France has also been proactive in discussions concerning the sanctions levied by the EU on Russia. Therefore, as an active proponent of European defense and foreign policy, France has a role to play in better articulating the interplay between the two Brussels institutions.
Of course, France will also have to answer some hard questions. The most notable one concerns the ongoing sale of Mistral frigates to Russia, which has sparked reactions ranging from concern to outrage throughout NATO. With the delivery of the first of two ships planned in the days to come, the onus is on Paris to provide an explanation and a plan to reassure its allies that this is not a breach of solidarity and that the country's commitment to Article 5 is infallible. President François Hollande will unfortunately not be able to dismiss the situation by explaining that it was inherited from his predecessor. The current situation is grave and calls, more than ever, for strong French leadership and adequate responses. This will condition how Russia perceives the seriousness of NATO’s unity and, by extension, how the Alliance responds to future threats.
Paris should therefore see the upcoming NATO summit as a venue to demonstrate its leadership. It has a prime opportunity to set the standards and tone for future discussions about NATO’s role in dealing with global challenges. In this context, France will undoubtedly be a central actor in the discussions about capabilities. Like most other NATO members, France’s defense budget has been hit by the crisis, and it will increasingly look to measures to share the burden and ensure that it can meet its numerous challenges, especially when it is already so heavily engaged in Africa. France will consequently be heavily involved in the discussions concerning the Framework Nations Concept, proposed by Germany, which aims to provide new frameworks for intra-Alliance division of labor on industrial and capabilities issues. While its position will be structured in part by the preservation of its industrial interests, Paris will also welcome an initiative that attempts to make NATO more flexible and less reliant on U.S. capabilities.
In the end, these issues all fit within the larger framework of the United States’ desire to see Europe take stronger ownership of NATO. France should seize the opportunity of the Wales Summit to use and maximize its leadership, and finally assume a driving role in an institution with which it has been at odds for so long.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.