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France's "still special" position in NATO

Isabelle Corbier, President of the Studies & Perspectives Committee of the Association des cadres et auditeurs de l'Institut des hautes études de défense nationale (AA-IHEDN), followed the strategic debate on 10 June 2024 on "France and NATO since 1989".

On Monday 10 June, Guillaume Lasconjarias, Head of the Studies and Research Department at the IHEDN, welcomed Olivier Forcade, Benoît d'Aboville and Serge Sur for their book "La France et l'OTAN depuis 1989" (published by Sorbonne Université Presses). The book is the result of two study days held in autumn 2021, bringing together diplomats, military officers and academics to answer the question: why NATO? The aim of the project was also to study how France has shaped this relationship with other Europeans and to understand the most recent and salient developments. Note that the journal International issues also published a special issue in 2022: "What is NATO for?

As Olivier Forcade, Professor of Contemporary International Relations at Sorbonne University's Faculty of Arts, points out, NATO was born out of a failure to put in place the collective security provided for and organised by the United Nations Charter. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation thus replaced the UN. Initially, it was a tool of deterrence against a designated enemy: the USSR. A tool designed to keep the Soviets out of Western Europe and the Americans in.

According to Serge Sur, professor emeritus of international public law at the University of Paris II and member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, there is a contradiction in the analysis of Clausewitz's assertion that war is the extension of politics. The essential role of an army is first and foremost to deter war. Otherwise we don't know where we're going or how we're going to get out of it. Negotiation is therefore absolutely essential. After the fall of the USSR, NATO could have disappeared. But then the United States proposed enlarging NATO, mainly for reasons of American domestic policy, as diplomat Benoît d'Aboville, former French ambassador to Prague and Warsaw and France's permanent representative to NATO (2001-2005), explains.


History thus helps us to understand the interest and usefulness of NATO and the behaviour of the various states. Europeans have always sought American security and peace, which explains why it has been so difficult to see the emergence of a genuine European defence pillar. Perhaps the time has come to think about European defence within NATO, which the Americans have long refused to do. A major strategic shift is now taking place. The Americans are facing two adversaries: on the one hand, a weakened Russia; on the other, China, whose nuclear strength is steadily increasing. The means of dealing with them are changing: the European strategy is becoming less important for the United States. Contrary to popular belief, Article 5 of the Treaty is not binding; on the contrary, it offers a great deal of flexibility.

France's position in the Alliance has always been a special one. We should not stop at 1966, the date of its withdrawal from NATO's integrated military committee, but consider a different chronology. France's position is based on the nuclear issue: the recognition in Ottawa in 1974 of France's own deterrent role, thus contributing to the overall strengthening of the Alliance's deterrent, is essential.

The points of convergence between French diplomacy and strategy on the side of NATO remain. France took part in the war in Kosovo in 1999 and played a key role in the Alliance during the so-called "Berlin +" agreements. 2003 marked a major turning point with President Jacques Chirac's rejection of intervention in Iraq. Terrorism brought France closer to NATO, without it supporting the American approach. France's reintegration into the integrated command was finally agreed by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009.

This essential collective work provides food for thought and shows the extent to which NATO evolves and adapts according to the will of the Allies. Past and present come together around the question of Ukraine today, and the concerns about the policies that Donald Trump might want to pursue if he is re-elected President of the United States in November.

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