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French Policy Toward NATO: Enhanced Selectivity, Vice Rapprochement

Authored by Dr. William T. Johnsen, Dr. Thomas-Durell Young. | September 1994

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French policy toward NATO has consistently challenged U.S. policymakers. On the one hand, bilateral security and defense cooperation between Washington and Paris has long been cordial, if not intimate. Moreover, relations between the respective armed services of these two countries have also been close and mutually support common national objectives.1 However, this degree of cooperation has not extended into the multilateral fora of NATO. Paris has long suspected U.S. motives in the Alliance and harbored perceptions of inadequate political control over NATO's military structures.2 This distrust has resulted in obstructionist, if not counterproductive, French policies toward the Alliance. It is little wonder, therefore, that this seemingly irrational and schizophrenic approach toward an organization which has provided the very bases for French national security has confused U.S. officials.

Yet, in its own Gallic and peculiar way, French policy toward NATO was logical. It was logique because President Charles de Gaulle, the architect of French security policy in the 5th Republic, felt that NATO-defined missions would not be as effective in ensuring civilian control over the military as those which were nationally defined. Thus, de Gaulle's decision to withdraw from NATO's integrated military structure served as the basis for Gaullist defense policy, which continues to influence strongly French strategy:3

  • Firm civilian control over the military, both within France and NATO,
  • An independent strategic nuclear deterrent,
  • Substrategic and conventional forces for deterrence and defense in Central Europe and the Mediterranean,
  • Intervention forces for out-of-area operations,
  • A sophisticated and technically advanced industrial base to ensure a high degree of independence in nuclear and conventional force requirements.

During the cold war, Gaullist security and defense policy offered France the luxury of pursuing a defense policy which supported specific Frenchnational interests, while Washington stationed forces in Germany and kept the Soviet Union out of Western Europe. Under these circumstances, France maintained an independent distance from NATO, garrisoned forces in Germany, developed national nuclear forces, and deployed military forces throughout the world in support of French and Western interests.

Paris, in short, had all of the political advantages of an aspiring world power, without having to pay the full political cost associated with NATO membership.4

Regrettably for France, this has all changed as recent events have destroyed the comfortable assumptions which underwrote Gaullist strategy. Pierre Lellouche writes,

The French too are awakening, reluctantly to a messy Europe, where most of the basic foreign policy and defense guidelines laid out by General Charles de Gaulle 35 years ago are simply no longer relevant.5

Moreover, recent circumstances have unleashed a series of events which have challenged cherished French political objectives in Europe. German unification ended the long held claim of French leadership in the close Franco-German relationship.6 The French vision for a deeper European Union

(EU)7 has effectively been placed on hold while the EU is widened with the inclusion of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Austria, and, perhaps by the end of the decade, some of the Visegrad states of Central Europe.8 Finally, the continuing conflict in the former-Yugoslavia, and Western Europe's seeming inability to halt hostilities there, let alone effect a long-term peace, have made French officials realize that their approach to dealing with both the United States and NATO needs to be revised.9

While these circumstances may be widely known within the U.S. policy-making community, the effects of these new conditions on French policy toward NATO may be less well understood. The key question about French policy remains whether this reassessment of NATO is in fact a change in policy, or attitude, or a combination of both. This paper will argue that altered regional security conditions have forced French President François Mitterrand to change aspects of French policy toward NATO. However, lingering atavistic attitudes within certain elements of the French bureaucracy may complicate the implementation and longevity of these new policies. Indeed, one needs to recognize that notwithstanding France's newly found interest in participating in NATO consultative fora, structures, programs, and activities, some French attitudes will not necessarily be all that different, or less difficult for Alliance and U.S. officials to confront.

Consequently, it is quite likely that American perceptions of recalcitrant French attitudes toward NATO will continue to impede closer ties. Yet, as recent events have demonstrated, French policy toward NATO is capable of dramatic change (notwithstanding French statements to the contrary) when French national interests so require. Thus, an appreciation of the subtle differences in policy and attitude will better elucidate actual changes in the content of French policy, and will indicate how policy will, or will not, be implemented.


U.S. and NATO adherence to these recommendations, while perhaps painful at times, will help smooth the bumpy road to fuller French participation in the Alliance. But, while France can be expected to turn to NATO more frequently in the future, more cooperation with Paris does not imply a more cooperative approach to doing business. For instance, when the Alliance attempted to accommodate French political sensitivities byconvening an informal meeting of defense ministers in October 1993 at Travemünde, Germany (the first of its kind),58 Minister of Defense Léotard did not attend.59 And, the fact that the Chief of the French Military Mission to the Military Committee now takes part in deliberations on peacekeeping and votes on such issues in the Military Committee does not ensure automatic French cooperation. Even without traditional French obstructionism, it is too much to expect that French national interests (or any other nation's) will always coincide with the remainder of the Alliance. Indeed, enhanced selectivity may possibly create as many future problems in NATO as it might solve.


1. On the surface, the image of French policy is of French independence in defense and security affairs, while maintaining, in public, a distant relationship with NATO. The image and reality are not the same. Following France's ostensible divorce from NATO, Allied commanders and their French counterparts maintained close, if not intimate, working relationships. As Frédéric Bozo documented in his comprehensive study on this "secret" relationship, French indépendence from NATO has, indeed, been qualified to say the least. See Frédéric Bozo, La France et l'OTAN; De la guerre froide au nouvel order européen, Paris: Masson, 1991. When considered with the very close relationship with the United States, to include nuclear research and development cooperation, the French claim of having maintained defense indépendence has to be assessed with skepticism. Apropos nuclear cooperation see The Washington Post, May 29, 1989, and June 2, 1989.

2. See Michael Harrison, The Reluctant Ally: France and Atlantic Security, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981, p. 118.

3. It should be mentioned that one of the reasons for the wide-spread support in France of the tenets of Gaullist defense policy over time is because it encapsulates long-standing French defense traditions. See Diego Ruiz Palmer, "French Strategic Options in the 1990s," Adelphi Papers, No 260, London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Summer 1991, p. 3. For excellent historical background on the development of Gaullist security policy see Harrison, The Reluctant Ally, pp. 116-134. For a superb analysis of French attitudes toward the military and defense policy, see David S. Yost, "The French Way of War," paper presented at the Conference of the International Studies Association, Philadephia, PA, March 18-21, 1981.

4. For an excellent assessment of contemporary French strategy and force structure, see David S. Yost, "France," in The Defense Policies of Nations: A Comparative Study, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, pp. 233-277.

5. Pierre Lellouche, "France in Search of Security," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, Spring 1993, p. 122. N.B.: Lellouche is the foreign affairs counsellor to Jacques Chirac, leader of the RPR.

6. See Frankfurter Allgemeine, July 19, 1990. For an excellent historical perspective on this important bilateral relationship see Julius W. Friend, The Linchpin: French-German Relations, 1950-1990, The Washington Papers No. 154, The Center for Strategic and International Studies, New York: Praeger, 1991.

7. See Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, "The Implications of German Unification for Western Europe," in The New Germany and the New Europe, ed. by Paul B. Stares, Washington, DC: The BrookingsInstitute, 1992, p. 266.

8. Note that Switzerland also is considering EU membership. The Visegrad states include: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary.

9. See Lellouche, p. 128.

53. See "Meeting of NATO Defence Ministers," Press Statement M-DM-1(93)64, Brussels, NATO Press Service, October 21, 1993.

59. See La Tribune Desfosses (Paris), October 20, 1993, in FBIS-WEU- 93-201, October 20, 1993, p. 32.