Prospect of French Nato return tilts power balance

The prospect of France returning to Nato’s military command after more than four decades of estrangement is tilting the balance of transatlantic relations.

The United States is courting France as a new partner in leadership, overshadowing Britain and Germany, diplomats and analysts say, even though President Nicolas Sarkozy is likely to skirt the reintegration issue at this week’s Bucharest summit of the 26-nation alliance.

Sarkozy announced last year that Paris was willing to return to the military structure from which General Charles de Gaulle withdrew it abruptly in 1966, provided the European Union first made progress on a common defence capability.

”Sarkozy saw an opening to become America’s number one friend,” said Nick Witney of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris.

”He achieved the benefits almost as soon as he opened his mouth and said ‘I love America’ and ‘Why not reintegrate fully in Nato?’.”

Nato diplomats said Sarkozy has privately set a target date of 2009, as long as he gets the necessary political cover, notably from Britain, on enhanced European defence integration so he can argue that Nato is being transformed and ”rebalanced”.

European and US diplomats say Washington is leaning discreetly on British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to cooperate with the French integration initiative, which US policymakers no longer regard as a threat to Nato.

”France’s return to the Nato command is a big prize and we are keen to help President Sarkozy make it happen,” said a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

US Nato ambassador Victoria Nuland has given speeches in London and Paris making clear Washington no longer has a problem with the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).

The issue is sensitive in Britain, where Eurosceptics remain fiercely opposed to any idea of a ”European army”.

During a visit to London last week, Sarkozy made no public mention of a long-standing French wish for the EU to boost its military planning apparatus. Britain has been wary of anything that would resemble a full-blown EU defence headquarters.

Added value

The French leader is expected to illustrate his value to the alliance by announcing in Bucharest the despatch of about 1 000 extra combat troops to reinforce Nato in Afghanistan.

A senior Nato diplomat noted Sarkozy’s move comes at a time when Britain’s armed forces are overstretched and Brown is keen to reduce overseas commitments, and Germany’s ”grand coalition” is shackled by public opposition to any combat role.

”The French can supply the forces now when we need them,” the Nato diplomat said. ”That counts for a lot.”

London boasts of a ”special relationship” with the United States but ex-prime minister Tony Blair became deeply unpopular at home for joining the US-led invasion of Iraq, and Brown has taken a much lower profile in foreign affairs.

Sarkozy has made a series of bold steps to reposition France since taking over last year from Gaullist Jacques Chirac, who toyed with Nato reintegration in 1995 but abandoned the idea after failing to wrest a key command post from Washington.

The new president has taken a risk at home, since much of the political establishment is wedded to the notion of an independent French or European foreign policy and hostile to any hint of subservience to the United States.

Chirac led international opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, causing the deepest rift in transatlantic relations since the end of the Cold War.

In contrast, Sarkozy has moved closer to Washington by taking a tougher line on Iran’s nuclear programme, advocating stronger sanctions and deterring French energy companies from investments in the Islamic Republic.

He has announced plans to open a naval base in the United Arab Emirates, across the Gulf from Iran, offered civilian nuclear power plants to pro-Western Arab states and led an EU military operation to contain the fallout from Sudan’s Darfur crisis in neighbouring Chad.

A German official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sarkozy enjoyed a freedom to act on the world stage which Brown did not seek and German Chancellor Angela Merkel could never attain for historical reasons.

”That makes him very attractive to the Americans,” he said.

The French are less keen on the potential price tag for returning to Nato’s integrated military command.

To achieve parity with Britain or Germany, Paris would have to provide 700 to 1 000 staff officers for allied headquarters and pay a bigger slice of Nato’s common budget.

”We have not been asked for more than 1 000 officers as a condition. We don’t even have them available. If the process succeeds it is a very long term process. You don’t change 40 years of policy with a click of the fingers,” a French diplomat said. – Reuters

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