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Germany, France and NATO

Authored by Ms. Maria Alongi, Dr. Peter Schmidt. | October 1994

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Current German and French relations with NATO are subject to (at least) two different interpretations. Due to the special role France has played since 1966 inside (and outside) the Atlantic Alliance, the main difference between these two views is the way in which the French relationship with the Alliance is perceived today.

The dominant school of thought maintains that France has gotten much closer to NATO.1 This has paved the way for a new transatlantic bargain which enables the Alliance to undertake new missions. As proof for this new French attitude toward NATO, proponents of this interpretation point out that France has endorsed the following collective defense and collective security missions:

  • the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC),
  • Partnership for Peace (PfP),
  • NATO-sponsored peace operations,
  • SACEUR's "operational command" of the EUROCORPS when agreed to by the participating countries.
  • Moreover, France is participating in Military Committee discussions related to peacekeeping operations.

This school of thought also holds that Germany, while remaining fully committed to NATO's military integration and political structure, has played an essential role in this change in French policy by dampening traditional Franco-American rivalries. Hence, some argue that Bonn has helped considerably to draw France closer into the Alliance's reform process than French political instincts may have accepted without this German effort.

U.S. support in January 1994 for European endeavors to develop a European security and defense identity is another important milestone in drawing France closer to NATO.2 According to this interpretation, the basis has been laid for a new transatlantic bargain which now allows a new and stable strategic partnership between Europe and North America in the post-cold war era.

The minority school of thought evaluates the relationship among France, Germany and NATO in a different way. This school argues that France has gotten what it has wanted.3 From this school's perspective, NATO's role and functions in today's overall security structure fits much better into traditional French interests and views than those of former days. Thus, France actively pursued this policy based on its own national interests. The proponents of this position argue that France remains apart from NATO's military integration and maintains its special status, while NATO's political role, a matter of constant French complaints, has diminished. Major political decisions are taken outside the Atlantic Alliance, e.g., like in the Security Council of the U.N., on a bilateral basis between the United States and the EU (within the context of its Command Foreign and Security Policy), or within flexible groupings. Even those taken within the Alliance are done in the North Atlantic Council where France remained even after its departure from the integrated military structure. Moreover, there is a clear tendency to separate political negotiation structures from implementing institutions (where NATO belongs more and more), while increasingly having to vie with new competitors in this field. In other words, NATO's role is more or less limited to the implementation of political decisions taken elsewhere.

Against the argument that NATO has assumed collective security functions (i.e., NACC and PfP),4 proponents of this interpretation argue that these new political functions remain limited by the CSCE framework and by the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy initiatives toward eastern Europe (e.g., the stability pact plan as offered by French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur) . 5 Moreover, according to this more modest view, the EUROCORPS-SACEUR agreement is not an indicator of a major French rapprochement toward NATO. Rather, it represents an extension of Gaullist policy of a limited relationship between NATO and other European nations, especially Germany, but also Spain and Belgium, who are participating in the EUROCORPS.

Furthermore, these observers contend that even where the Alliance has a political role to play, France has successfully restrained NATO's reach by promoting parallel European institutions. NACC, offered to all former Warsaw Pact countries in November 1991, for example, has been succeeded by the Consultative Forum of WEU, created in June 1992, and the Balladur plan a year later. And, the European answer to NATO's PfP has been the creation of associate partner status for Central European countries with WEU.

Finally, certain analysts have argued that Germany's overall relationship with NATO has shifted toward the French position. Certainly, most of the Bundeswehr remains assigned to NATO, but, by and large, Germany has gone along with Paris by accepting the French type of NATO relationship, e.g., in the framework of the EUROCORPS and by double-hatting military forces to both NATO and WEU.

Thus, from this perspective, since the Alliance's January 1994 Summit, the United States has opted not to play an important role in the Alliance. Furthermore, the United States has acquiesced to French leadership in European security affairs by accepting the European Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy and WEU's policy of independence. The Alliance's new policy of providing NATO assets for European-led operations, which only further accentuates NATO's future insignificance, lends credence to this view.


In summary, I am inclined to support the argument that changed security conditions in Europe have allowed France to pursue initiatives that limit NATO's role and potential for success. In the field of collective defense, NATO today has a looser structure than in former days. But even under these changed circumstances France does not participate in the Alliance's military structure. With regard to cooperative security NATO has attracted new functions, but France has ensured that in cases with a purely European character, the EU and WEUbalance NATO's possibilities.

Although NATO members accepted a new Alliance role in regional crises beyond the traditional NATO geographical area, other parallel European institutions such as the CSCE also have developed. The main political trend points to a bilateral European-American relationship outside NATO, which perfectly fits into traditional French interests. The new French White Paper on Defense is quite clear in this regard: priority is given to the development of Europe as a strategic actor; NATO plays only a secondary role. The key question remains whether this result is good or bad for Atlantic relations. And what are the problems of a relationship where European interests meet American interests in a fully organized way?

The first difficulty is that the actors involved, the EU and the United States, are of different character. The EU with its Common Foreign and Security Policy still is an intergovernmental framework with its odd moments of "communitarianism." The United States represents an integrated structure (where certainly indecisiveness and lack of coordination are constant features), but with the constant potential for structuring decisive guidance. This situation brings about a structural tendency for frictions and misunderstandings.

A second problem is that a bilateral structure renders NATO's political fora obsolete. A new structure, which reflects this bilateralism, would be the logical consequence. This structure might be based on similar regulations like the EU-U.S. bilateral talks based on the agreement of 1990.29 This might encourage a tendency to regard NATO solely as a military "tool box"; a trend which was advanced by the agreement during NATO's January 1994 summit that WEU should have access to NATO assets, including Combined/Joint Task Force structures. One may argue that bureaucratic inertia may give NATO a good chance to survive with such a limited function. My view, however, is that NATO could hardly stay alive if the military structures are not embedded into a functioning political framework which is able to create the necessary political consensus for possible military actions. Hence, there is a need for a consensus-stimulating institutional framework in which political procedures are able to overcome, at least to a certain extent, the differences of interest between the nations involved.

Despite all talk of an independent West European capability for regional actions beyond NATO, there is no doubt that the West European countries will be unable to mobilize the resources necessary to realize this option in the near future. The reason for this is due in part to a lack of combat force multipliers in such key areas as command, control, communication and intelligence, as well as in the field of strategic transport. This will hardly change at a time when almost all countries want to enjoy a peace dividend.30 Taking into account the likely need to address the issue of anti-ballistic missile defense, a verycostly proposition, reasonable doubts about far-reaching European independence of military action exist. This might explain why France is still ready to accept NATO's existence and to exploit, like in the case of Bosnia, its capabilities. Nevertheless, the impression prevails that France continues to try to downgrade the Alliance's political (and military) functions as far as possible and to bypass NATO's political structure by putting much more emphasis on other fora and even on a prosperous bilateral French-American relationship. 31


1. With regard to this view on French politics, see Michael Meimeth, "France Gets to NATO," The World Today, Vol. 50, No. 5, May 1994, pp. 84-85; and, Philip H. Gordon, Die Deutsch-Französische Partnerschaft und die Atlantische Allianz, Arbeitspapiere zur internationalen Politik (Europa-Union Verlag Bonn) 1994. For the official view see Wolfgang Ischinger, "Gemeinsame Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik. Thesen zur deutsch-französischen Vorreiterrolle" in Ingo Kolboom, ed., Frankreich in Europa: ein deutsch-französischer Rundblick (Europa Union Verlag, Bonn) 1993.

2. The decisive sentences in the declaration of the NATO Summit Meeting are:

We support strengthening the European pillar of the Alliance through the Western European Union, which is being developed as the defence component of the European Union. The Alliance's organization and resources will be adjusted so as to validate this. . . . We therefore stand ready to make collective assets of the Alliance available, on the basis of consultations in the North Atlantic Council for WEU operations undertaken by the European Allies in pursuit of their Common Foreign and Security Policy.

See "Declaration of the Heads of State and Government Participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council," January 10-11, 1994, Bruxelles, NATO Press Service, Press Communique M-1(94)3, January 11, 1994.

3. This group is much more diverse than the first one. Major elements of the "ideal typus" can be found in: Erich Hauser, "Geschicktes Fingerspiel auf vier Klavieren" in Frankfurter Rundschau, June 8, 1993, p. 7; Roland Höhne, "Frankreichs Stellung in der Welt. Weltmacht oder Mittelmacht" in Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, Beilage zur Wochenzeitung Das Parlament, B 47-48/91, November 15, 1991, pp. 37-46; and, Peter Schmidt, "French Security Policy Ambitions," Aussenpolitik, No. 4, 1993, pp. 334-343.

4. See "Declaration of the Heads of State and Government Participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council"; and,"Final Communique of the Ministerial Meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Istanbul", June 9, 1994, Bruxelles, NATO Press Service, Press Communique M-NAC-1(94)46, June 9, 1994.

29. See Declaration on EC-US Relations, Europe Documents, No. 1622, November 23, 1990.

30. Only France plans to increase slightly its military expenditures in the years to come. All other European states will experience substantial cuts in defense expenditures.

31. See, for example, the report on the French-American "rapprochement" in the case of Serbia in Le Figaro, February 1994, p. 4.