Byline: Leo Michel; Michel is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C.
French refusal to integrate fully into NATO has limited its influence on the alliance's direction.
In March 1966, Charles de Gaulle wrote a five-paragraph letter to Lyndon Johnson stating that France, while remaining a party to the NATO alliance, intended to withdraw from its integrated military structures. Bitter rows with LBJ over East-West relations, Vietnam and the sprawling U.S. bases in France partly explained the rupture. But le General aimed to send a broader message: France would not accept any impediments to its sovereignty or ability to conduct an "independent" foreign policy. Controversial at the time, his stand eventually became an article of faith across the French political spectrum.
Forty-three years later, President Nicolas Sarkozy recognizes that the world, France and NATO have changed greatly since de Gaulle. Unlike some influential French political figures, he harbors no illusion that his country can build a "European" defense, based on the European Union, as an alternative to the transatlantic alliance. "It's ridiculous," he said at the recent Munich Security Conference, "that France has been suspected of wanting to weaken NATO while we have taken an increasingly important place within it." Ending France's a la carte approach to NATO also serves Sarkozy's objective of cementing close ties to the United States. But having promised to seal the "normalization" of French relations with NATO at the alliance's April summit in Strasbourg and Kehl, Sarkozy must now rebut de Gaulle's premise--that participation in NATO's military structures is incompatible with French independence--without appearing disrespectful to the late president's memory.
Sarkozy's first task--explaining "normalization" to his public--should not be too difficult. NATO has 11 major headquarters across nine countries, directed by some 100 generals and admirals with ranks of one to four stars. The top positions are allocated on the basis of criteria including an ally's contribution to NATO's military budget, its role in operations (with a bonus for more difficult ones like Afghanistan), its participation in NATO's nuclear forces, and its share of the nearly 15,000 officers and noncommissioned officers assigned to headquarters staffs. Currently, the United States holds three of the alliance's four-star posts, including its two "supreme commander" positions. Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy share the four other four-star posts. But France, one of the top-ranking Europeans in terms of military …