Transatlantic ties have often been called the foundation of European security, the political cement that forms the bond between NATO allies. The relationship is also an indicator of the strength of the alliance. The strength of NATO doesn’t lie merely in the arithmetic sum of the military capabilities, firepower and size of the armed forces of its members – to which the US contributes the greatest share – it also consists of the strategic American interest in (defending) Europe and the ability of Europeans to keep transatlantic ties strong. NATO has endured as a unified and strong alliance for the last 65 years in spite of occasional tensions between members, such as the risk of war between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus in 1974 or the opposition of leaders in “old Europe” to President George W. Bush’s Iraq war in 2003. Yet a very important factor in the development of transatlantic ties – one I would call a kind of political barometer – has always been the role of France in the alliance and the relations between this particular, headstrong country and the US:

A founding NATO member who left in a huff and returned proudly

Since the founding of NATO in 1949 up to 2008, the French attitude and role in the alliance was defined by Gaullism, the policy shaped by General Charles de Gaulle. As we know, France is a founding member of NATO, and the headquarters and important structures and bases were originally located on French soil. But in 1966, the relations between France and the US-UK became so strained that the French head of state pulled showed the alliance the door. All NATO structures and allied forces had to leave France post-haste. The NATO headquarters moved in rapid order to a hospital building just completed in a suburb of Brussels. France would be absent from NATO military structures for the next 43 years, while remaining a member of the alliance and taking regular part in political discussions and the decision-making process. Only in 1995 did President Jacques Chirac seek a rapprochement with NATO – and France again started taking part in military operations, including in the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. The ultimate return of NATO’s prodigal son to the alliance’s military fold was officialised by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009 at the Strasbourg-Kehl summit.

French security and defence policy has continuously changed over these historical periods and today political relations between France and the Anglo-American members are much warmer and businesslike than ever before, although the primary principles of Gaullism paradoxically continue to hold sway right up the present day. France still is not participating – and it is the only holdout among NATO members – in the NATO Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) and has clearly stated, in the Livre Blanc de la Sécurité et de la Défense Nationale in 2008 and 2013, that it reserves the right to decide on use of its armed forces based on its own assessment of a specific crisis situation.

A French Army Land Rover and pallets of rations are seen on a Royal Air Force C17 cargo aircraft as it prepares to leave for Bamako in Mali from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, 16 January 2013. The British Royal Air Force is lending logistical support to France as it sends forces to Mali. With the help of NATO allies including Britain, the United States, Germany, Belgium, Canada and Denmark the first African troops arrived in Mali within days and a 3,000-strong ECOWAS contingent was gathered in few weeks. Photo: Scanpix


But let us go back in time for a moment, to the roots of Gaullism. The British have long been the historical rivals – and sometimes even enemies – of the French (for more on this, I recommend Stephen Clark’s 1000 Years of Annoying the French), But the US came strongly to the fore in the post-World War II age as the dominant superpower and a period of hegemony for the English language also began (as the French would say, to the detriment of the French language). The Anglo-Americanophobia among the French deepened. The French saw all English-speaking peoples (even the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders) as cut from the same cloth, calling then Anglo-Saxons, which tends to have a negative subtext. The term les anglo-saxons is still used today and not only to help to distinguish the French culture and mentality from the English-speaking world, but to highlight the claimed superiority and undisputed uniqueness of the French. One of the key factors of the transatlantic relations has always been the relationship between les anglo-saxons and, as it were, the “Frenchies”. This context shaped the developments during and after World War II, where the US became the catalyst for Gaullism. In the trying conditions of the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill lent support to Charles de Gaulle, and FDR also tolerated the behaviour of the stubborn and often arrogant French general. Without this, de Gaulle would not have likely become the French leader and great man of history that he did. Furthermore, it was these same Anglo-Saxons who bore the main burden for liberating France. But these facts didn’t deter de Gaulle, who sought special status for France as a world power and above all in Europe. Now was he under any condition willing to bid adieu to the French colonial empire (especially Algeria) and hated, more than anything else, how the British “kowtowed” before the US. The ascendancy of the English language and American ideals in the free world simply fanned the flames as far as de Gaulle was concerned.

Return to the alliance’s fold

France’s absence from NATO’s military structures and activities (including defence planning, exercises etc) was a lengthy one. France’s independence nuclear deterrence became a symbol of its independence from the US, and remains that way today. During the Cold War, France considered West Germany to be, in some respects, a buffer state. To paraphrase a joke in the context of the Northern Europe of those days, the French were prepared to defend their country to the last German. But after the Cold War, when war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, French policy started changing. It could no longer remain on the sidelines and had to join with allies in taking action. Paris soon realized that a return to NATO military structures was inevitable, as it wouldn’t be too wise to contribute to military operations without taking part in the process of planning and command. President Jacques Chirac tried to reconcile with NATO in 1995 and achieve as favourable an agreement as possible for France to return to those military structures.

But apparently the French demanded too much (various commander positions in NATO’s various commands etc)( and the domestic political situation did not prove conducive to a comeback in NATO. The so-called transitional period, during which France committed major forces to NATO military operations, including in Kosovo and Afghanistan, while remaining an outsider – was a protracted one, as Chirac made no further overtures to NATO. True, this was no longer within the possibilities of the domestic political calculus, as Franco-American relations took a sudden turn for the worse with the new Iraq crisis. Chirac demonized George W. Bush but did not see Putin as a threat. At the critical moment that Estonia was preparing to join NATO, it seemed the transatlantic relationship that had withstood so many challenges was foundering. An indignant Chirac went so far as to vocally rebuke the US’s political allies, including Estonia (for not using the great opportunity to remain silent). At the same time, France committed up to 3,000 troops to the ISAF operation in Afghanistan and engaged in close cooperation with the Americans.

In 2007, France’s US and NATO policy changed decisively when Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president. He saw not only an opportunity but also a need to warm relations with the White House.

Sarkozy also declared that France had to rejoin NATO’s military structures. On one hand, this was a domestically thorny decision (which could not be done without seriously shaking the foundations of Gaullism) and at once a fairly resource-intensive endeavour (about 1,000 officers with sufficiently high proficiency in English and several million euros had to be found). In no time, the US welcomed France’s decision and the negotiations within the alliance yielded a result that was very much to Paris’s liking. France was back in the alliance, head upright and at full strength. Here it should be noted that France considers its nuclear deterrent capability (both the naval and air component) separate from NATO and its chain of command, although it has politically declared that it is a part of the alliance’s general nuclear deterrence.

For the French, the question of language is very important. NATO has always had two official languages – French and English. When French officers found in 2009 that NATO had essentially become English-speaking over the decades, they realized that they had no one else to blame for this but France. Yet this has not in any way complicated the alliance’s activities or the integration of French military into NATO’s military structures. The French armed forces are no less capable than the British military, and thus the US has always had a high regard for them.

L’Europe de la Défense

The above subheading is the quite lyrical title often used in France to refer to common European security and defence policy. For France, it is a cherished political project, because it is a way for Europe to become emancipated from American influence and become a considerable and independent military player. And France would be the leading force in this project. The ambitions of Paris were especially great, insofar as it held the presidency of the European Union in 2008. But many allies saw a pointless overlapping with the efforts of the alliance at large – if it wasn’t direct competition, it was in at least the political sense. For this reason, Sarkozy was cautious in 2008 not to send the wrong signal to allies on the return of France to NATO, avoiding the impression France was trying to undermine NATO. Of course, the common security and defence policy has not ultimately made it very far or yielded noteworthy results, and it seems to me that at the current juncture France is no longer even sticking to its guns on the matter.

Russian sailors stand next to the Vladivostok warship in the port of Saint-Nazaire, western France, 5 September 2014. Responding to international pressure, France suspended the delivery of the warship to Russia at least until November amid security concerns over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine crisis. The Vladivostok, the first of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers ordered by Russia, was due to be delivered next month as part of a 1.2 billion euro ($1.6 billion) contract - the biggest-ever sale of NATO weaponry to Moscow.  Photo: Scanpix

Russia: A new challenge for the alliance and transatlantic relationship

In the post-Cold War period, NATO’s main functions also encompass, besides collective defence, foreign missions and partnerships. Now, in connection with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the international situation has changed again and NATO is returning to its original raison d’être – collective defence. It can be said with a certain satisfaction that the US – which was looking strategically toward the Asia and Pacific region – is “back” in Europe (the quotation marks underscore that the US never left Europe but did draw down its military presence considerably). A couple years ago t was discussed whether the US would soon pull all of its forces out of Europe, but now some of them have been re-deployed in the Baltics, Poland, and Romania. Yet France, which had committed itself seriously to the collective defence of the alliance and is contributing actively to the Baltic Air Policing mission, is still dealing with Russia in a manner significantly different to the approach used by the US and the UK.

We have not heard the word “aggression” once from out of the French President in the context of what Russia is doing in Ukraine. It appears that the French political leadership wants to restore the status quo with Russia as soon as possible. For France, it appears to be surprisingly hard to give up or postpone the delivery of the Mistral class helicopter carriers to Russia. The US has strongly and repeatedly criticized this reluctance. At the same time, France did not block or try to significantly obstruct NATO’s process of strengthening defence of its eastern allies as a response to the threat from Russia. In that sense, the differences in political attitudes between Paris and Washington have not curtailed the activities of the alliance or jeopardized the transatlantic relationship.

If we look at the bigger picture, far from the most direct context of Estonian security and defence, we see that the primary and militarily most capable allies for Estonia have engaged in and continue to engage in close cooperation in quite disparate crisis situations. We should recall Libya, but also Mali and the Central African Republic, to say nothing of the Persian Gulf and the bombardment of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Estonia and the transatlantic relationship

Estonia has made a politically very wise decision in devoting itself above all to military cooperation with the so-called Anglo-Saxons, its big allies the US and the UK. I believe that it is these countries that offer Estonia the most solid security guarantee, not that we should underestimate the solidarity and will of other allies to contribute to bolstering Estonia’s defence. Moreover, the US and the UK have shown the most resolute opposition to Russia’s aggression. And just as intelligently, Estonia has cultivated defence and military cooperation with France, which has now attained a very good footing in spite of France’s attitudes toward Russia, which seem too egocentric (and negligent toward Estonia) or even alarming. In this sense, Estonia us capable – tempered of course by the realization that we are not a large country – to be an effective actor on NATO’s main axis of power – the transatlantic relationship.

Last but not least, NATO will continue to have active capacity as long as the transatlantic relationship remains strong. The latter will be the case as long as there is interest on both sides of the Atlantic in maintaining, developing and utilizing the alliance in the interests of all NATO members. It is premature to predict NATO’s demise – no matter how much the Kremlin may yearn for it – because a new, impressive and modern alliance headquarters is about to be completed in Brussels and member states and partner representations will shortly be moving in.

Kalev Stoicescu is a research fellow at the International Centre for Defence Studies