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NATO1997     Year of Change

French Gamesmanship and the Future of the Alliance:
The Case of Allied Forces Southern Europe

Ronald Tiersky

The dispute over the French proposal on who should command AFSOUTH—the Allied Forces Southern Europe NATO command headquartered in Naples—reignited acrimonious Franco-U.S. diplomatic relations. But why exactly does AFSOUTH matter so much? The reason is a larger story than AFSOUTH itself.

The fact is that long-term issues are at stake, more significant than the Naples functional command itself. AFSOUTH should not be understood as an isolated issue in the process of creating a new NATO. In itself, there is no reason why AFSOUTH should be a sticking point which makes or breaks the whole reform of NATO, or even whether France does finally return inside the integrated command structure.

Seen in proper context, AFSOUTH is but the latest episode in a broader attempt, French but also European, to end up with a "more visible" European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI) inside the Atlantic Alliance. The AFSOUTH conflict results, in other words, from the larger June 1996 NATO Council European agreement with Washington to build ESDI inside NATO, rather than the earlier European plan for a free standing Western European Union (WEU) military force which would be the military force of the European Union (EU), a WEU working with NATO but outside it.

French Attempts to Improve the U.S.-European Leadership Balance

The French have tried, with much frustration, to play point country in this broad diplomatic-military negotiation with the United States for a greater European "leadership balance" inside a future NATO which will have ESDI inside it. This better "balance" is also, however, a French code word for limiting the United States practical domination of the institutions of the integrated command and, especially, what they view as "American unilateralism" in the way NATO works. In other words, the French campaign on AFSOUTH has been in large part the continued waging, inside NATO, of a struggle for Europeanization of Europe’s security and defense after abandonment of the plan for a free-standing WEU-ESDI because Bosnia proved the need, admitted even by the French, for continued U.S. leadership in European security affairs.

But the French in this effort on AFSOUTH have had only half-hearted support from France’s main diplomatic-military partners, Germany and Britain. This is because, while the British and the Germans worry also that U.S. leadership can be overbearing, they believe the U.S. security role in Europe is more important than playing dare-devil diplomatic games with the Europe-balancing of U.S. influence. Bosnia showed that the United States is still, to use President Clinton’s preferred term, the "indispensable nation" in European security.

What Drives the French Demand for AFSOUTH

The French demand on AFSOUTH arose out of three major security policy events in the new French president’s first year, 1995-96. First was Jacques Chirac’s unexpected success—applauded all around—in prodding the Clinton administration to lead the two days of NATO air attacks necessary to stop the fighting in Bosnia, thus intimidating the Bosno-Serbs into a truce and soon the Dayton negotiations. Second was the announcement of Chirac’s plan for a wholesale reform of the French military. France was lagging behind the U.K. and Germany in overhauling its armed forces for post-Cold War missions, and Chirac’s bold design aims to create a rapid-reaction, downsized, leaner-but-meaner French army in five years. Third was Chirac’s seemingly un-Gaullist announcement that he would bring France back into the integrated NATO command, a startling move which was followed, in the wake of Dayton, by the French president’s very public "welcome," in his February 1996 speech to a joint session of Congress, of America’s "necessary" leadership role in the Alliance. "NATO," said the supposedly neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac, "simply doesn’t work without U.S. leadership."

The broad issue was thus posed: given France’s return to the integrated command, how to reconcile U.S. leadership with a "more visible" European identity in NATO? How to implement the June 1996 NAC communique at Berlin, which said that the ESDI called for in the Maastricht Treaty will be created inside NATO, rather than outside?

President Chirac, to put it another way, had accepted that the demonstrated European insufficiencies of political coordination, determination, logistics, intelligence, and communications capabilities meant that, at least for a certain period, the European "defense identity" must be built inside NATO. The French then had to insure that the European aspect of NATO, the ESDI, would be as genuine and as visible as possible. If not a Gaullist role in the classic mold of de Gaulle himself, maybe it could be passed off as a neo-Gaullism adapting to the times.

Thus, a new Franco-U.S. contentiousness was made inevitable insofar as Jacques Chirac would be as determined to get ESDI "visibility" in the new NATO as he had been in convincing the Clinton administration to lead military intervention against the Bosno-Serbs.

Broadening NATO’s European Command Visibility

What new positions and responsibilities would Europeans be given in the new NATO’s integrated command structure?

Many changes had already been agreed to before the clash over the French proposal that the AFSOUTH billet be a rotating European command. The AFSOUTH conflict was in fact the last big issue in the negotiation, and most observers thought the French would probably compromise in time for the summer 1997 NATO summit.

But AFSOUTH got turned into a test of wills between the Clinton administration and President Chirac. The Americans thought it an unacceptable demand, a proposal brought too late which asked for too much, too soon. On the French side, the U.S. unwillingness even to negotiate, President Clinton’s flat no, was seen as a lack of reciprocity for the various Atlanticist policy and attitude changes which Chirac had initiated.

By early March 1997, Chirac declared to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that a pause may be in the works, that he may put on hold the entire French return to NATO’s integrated command structure. He mentioned a "cooling-off period" of "two or three years."

This intent not to give in is an indication that, at least on the French side, much more is involved than the argument about who gets to name the Naples commander. The French want to insist a more European-oriented balance of leadership and leading positions inside NATO than the Americans seem willing to accept. And the French want to be the ones to achieve this shift in equilibrium, and to be seen, by Americans and especially other Europeans, as the ones to have achieved it.

Thus the merely ambivalent support of Chirac’s tactics and plans by his European allies causes him much worry. Can the French impose their own game on the larger game?

The Germans and British, like everyone else, clearly see France’s military and economic weaknesses and perceive the domestic political fragility of Chirac’s presidency and parliamentary coalition. They cannot help but doubt whether the French would in any case be able to deliver in Chirac’s grasping for greater French leadership, whether vis-a-vis the Americans or inside the European Council. For them as well as the Americans, the Chirac gambit on AFSOUTH may be over-reaching, asking for too much, too soon.

As for the Franco-U.S. diplomatic bitterness, misunderstandings about what the French wanted as well as precipitous escalation by Chirac to the presidential level, in an exchange of letters (which are now public property) created an unnecessary atmosphere of crisis and non-negotiable demands. For example, the French, contrary to first impressions last August, never asked for the Naples command for France alone. They proposed a rotating European command. The French say, furthermore, that they never envisaged European control of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, that their proposals always contained mechanisms to hive off the Sixth Fleet in such a way that it would always be under a direct U.S. chain of command. And the French also conceded that U.S. doubts about European command inexperience, competence and credibility were pertinent and required answers. The Europeans, they asserted, could get up to speed over a period of two or three years. They asked, therefore, for agreement on a principle, with implementation over time. They thought this a quite reasonable request, or as Americans understand it, risk.

U.S. policy, for its part, has insisted on three principles: 1) Military optimization must take precedence over politically- motivated awards of extra positions, which are an honored NATO tradition; 2) There must be an unbroken U.S. chain of command of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, stationed in the Mediterranean and AFSOUTH’s most important military force; 3) There should be no political or military constraints on U.S. action in extra-NATO security responsibilities, in tasks only the United States could take on, in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Given these basics, U.S. officials had already willingly accepted the idea of a new NATO leadership configuration comporting a more visible ESDI.

In fact, though often ignored by commentaries focused on the AFSOUTH dispute, this Europeanization has already largely occurred. The most visible example is a new, genuinely powerful European Deputy Supreme Allied Commander (SACEUR). This Deputy SACEUR is a top-level functional commander who would run any future Europeans-only, ESDI-WEU missions.

The AFSOUTH command, however, has taken on new importance in the post-Cold War era. In fact, specialists agree that it is probably now more important than SACEUR because in the post-Cold War world the main "front" of potential NATO security problems has switched from the continent to the southern command, from central Europe to the Mediterranean and neighboring areas.

A "more visible" ESDI inside NATO is thus not only institutionally possible and politically desirable, it has already to a large extent happened. The problem is the "extra" French proposal about AFSOUTH, which came after the initial negotiation was completed. The U.S. side felt wronged by Chirac’s additional "demand," while the French argued that successful conclusion of the initial negotiation didn’t preclude further proposals.

As for the AFSOUTH situation as such, U.S. negotiators criticize the French proposals by emphasizing that new command responsibilities ought to reflect real national capacities and genuine commitments to NATO. This is both to place French commitments into doubt and an indirect way of asserting that only the United States can fill the full AFSOUTH task. Americans point out that the French, even though they started to rejoin various integrated command institutions last year, have not yet shown the commitment of formally earmarked national military forces to it. The Americans, in other words, were wary of statements of intent which may or may not be fulfilled.

The Americans, in short, don’t have confidence that the Europeans can do the job right. But at the same time, a permanently disparaging U.S. attitude toward principal allies is, as the British Ambassador Sir John Kerr recently told a Washington audience, a self-defeating error.

Is the French AFSOUTH Position an Old Argument or a Harbinger of ESDI?

Is the French proposal for a rotating European AFSouth command just unacceptable? Or is the French proposal a plausible idea for a more visible ESDI, to which U.S. policymakers have over-reacted, reducing it to a caricature the better to stave it off?

Even with the Soviet threat gone, post-Cold War West-West intra-alliance relations, thus Franco-U.S. relations, remain a matter of weaker powers working to limit the dominant power. Nevertheless in some ways the Europeans, in the post-Cold War era, will surely have greater room to maneuver vis-a-vis the United States than before. So the French proposal can be seen as either a new version of the old Cold War French game of seeking leverage inside a basic-ally unquestioned alliance, or as a harbinger of a new era in which ESDI, whether inside NATO or self-standing, will take on increasing significance.

France’s proposals for NATO reform might seem anchored in the sort of traditional geopolitical thinking summed up by de Gaulle’s famous aphorism: "A nation has neither permanent enemies nor friends, only permanent interests." Whatever its truth in the 1960s, its pertinence today, in a world where major wars seem unlikely and economic competition has replaced war as the primary means of national power, may be seriously less. And as for the constraint of a Gaullist pedigree, today even a Jacques Chirac doesn’t mind being known as an Americanophile. Nevertheless, defending France’s national interests and the interests of European integration may yet require fights with friends.

U.S. policy, on the other hand, in its neo-Wilsonian tradition begins with the premise that alliance is friendship and common values as much as it is national interest. International struggle, to the neo-Wilsonian, is not necessarily a matter of unavoidable conflicts of interest. Conflicts can be a kind of bad faith, a stain upon the principle of open, democratic partnership. This optimistic and particularly U.S. point of view therefore regards serious disputes among allies as unnecessary departure from a norm of "natural" agreement.

In short, even when relationships do go along smoothly, French and U.S. views of alliance as such begin from different assumptions.

On the other hand, the other traditional starting point in U.S. foreign policy—realism—posits that conflicts of interest and tensions naturally exist even among allies, and it is not necessarily to ideologize them, or to see them as the emanation of bad faith. Disagreements should be worked out on the basis of objective factors, not either side’s stereotyped understanding of what the other "really means" or "really is."

The French have a tendency to stereotype U.S. policy sometimes as the one and sometimes as the other, sometimes as neo-Wilsonian, other times as Realpolitik U.S.-style. But paradoxically, a European-derived American realism is in a way less welcome to allies than is American idealism. This is because the "objective factors" approach—power and the capacity to use it for policy ends—ends up nearly always in U.S. dominance. "Gaullism for everybody" is an intrinsically dangerous maxim for weaker powers.

In any case, the lessons of this century favor U.S. reluctance in the face of enthusiastic European demands to be more "visible" and in control in European security. In two world wars, a cold war, the Gulf War and Bosnia, Europe has needed U.S. military power and security guarantees. Better not to destroy the security system you have, until you have another with which to replace it. Not surprisingly, French negotiators in the current disagreement over AFSOUTH want to talk much less about the past than about the future. U.S. negotiators, on the other hand, begin with the wizened view that, in Shakespeare’s words, "What’s past is prologue."

Franco-U.S. conflicts, as over AFSOUTH, can in this historical perspective be, if not easily resolved, at least understood in appropriate perspective. Some French officials have as much as admitted that the initial claim on AFSOUTH was too much, too soon. (French General Philippe Morrillon, former commander of UN peacekeepers in Sarajevo, said months ago he "didn’t understand" why Chirac demanded AFSOUTH, and wasn’t consulted). But for Paris it is not unthinkable, let alone a moral wrong, to adopt a conflictual attitude, even with the most important security ally, in order to re-open a negotiation for a good purpose.

The problem for the French is that it seems President Chirac saw NATO reform, and the proposal on AFSOUTH in particular, too much against the background of his effectiveness in working the Bosnia tragedy in concert with his friend Bill Clinton. Chirac forced his luck and, for the moment, has lost. He either miscalculated, or just chose badly, perhaps being poorly informed by his advisors about the U.S. commitment to AFSOUTH.

AFSOUTH as a Symbol of European Desires

In any case the French goal is not AFSOUTH as such. Neither the French, nor any Europeans for that matter, lust for new military commands and new wars in order to prove . . . what?

The stake is not military as such, though the danger of war can never be excluded. It is rather the desire for enhanced French and European rank and prestige in the Atlantic security structure as it enters, at least plausibly, a new period of "Long Peace."

The French goal is thus to provoke this Franco-European enhancement within NATO, to be the partner which obliges the United States to negotiate where the present Administration does not want to do so. The French want to be—and want to be seen to be—America’s crucial European diplomatic/military partner.

When the Bush administration in the wake of German unification suddenly named Germany as America’s European "partner in leadership," this U.S. preference for Germany naturally wounded the French, not to mention the British. Chirac is trying to change perceptions not only in Washington but also in other European capitals and beyond, for example in the Middle East and even in Moscow. While Germany will be America’s decisive partner in economic and financial terms, France wants to be Europe’s diplomatic/military point country. And Germany would itself benefit from having a more credible French partner in the Franco-German tandem at the core of European policy. This explains Germany’s endorsement, careful as it was, of Chirac’s manueverings.

Will Chirac’s strategy work? The answer, to be generous and objective at this point, is to suspend judgment.

To the extent it does work, France will increase not only French prestige, but also its contribution in the "Franco-German couple" at the core of European integration. It is crucial to remember that further EU integration—monetary union, political union and enlargement to the east—all this is on the agenda at the same time as reform of NATO. We therefore must conceptualize AFSOUTH and other security policy dilemmas, keeping in mind that security and integration issues intersect, and increasingly so, for example in the nearly-simultaneous expansion of NATO and the enlargement of the EU. In both security and integration, France needs Germany, and Germany needs a partner which can only be France, because Britain is not a continental country and because it is culturally so much tied to the United States.

French leaders, in short, in this one sense have not changed since de Gaulle. They want France, as they say, to "exist," in an existentialist meaning: France must have a "vocation," a "mission," a "project," and France must make its own meaning and ensure its own independence and autonomy. To oblige the Americans to negotiate over something important which Washington does not want to negotiate, would be in itself a victory of a sort, even if the French get much less than they ask for. So AFSOUTH is the stake in the current Franco-U.S. disagreement, but not the principle.

The question is, will France and the Europeans succeed in "existing" in the post-Cold War economic and security system? Or will post-Yalta Europe, post-Communist Europe, post-Europe between the superpowers, still be subordinate, even after the collapse of the threatening superpower?

For the Europeans, it will be an "embarrassing" situation—to put it mildly—if they can’t muster the will to "exist" once again in a world where no major impediment can serve as an excuse.

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