France’s Role in NATO Not in Question Despite US Rift

September 25, 2021

BRUSSELS — As tensions between France and the United States simmered this week over an Indo-Pacific defense deal that sank a multi-billion-dollar French submarine contract, a French general handed the baton of a key NATO command center to a fellow French air force officer.

At a ceremony Thursday in Norfolk, Virginia, Gen. Philippe Lavigne took charge of Allied Command Transformation, where NATO does its strategic thinking, from Gen. Andre Lanata, who had led the center for three years. 

The handover cemented France's place at the head of one of the military alliance's two strategic command centers, and NATO's only headquarters in North America. French officers have held the post since 2009, when Paris reversed a 1966 decision to pull out of NATO's command structure.

Lavigne's nomination was announced in May. It was not influenced by the shambolic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan that damaged U.S. credibility, or the submarine contract rift, which led to the recall of French ambassadors and rumors that Paris might once again leave NATO's integrated military structure.

Indeed, the command handover illustrates that even amid the kerfuffle over the defense pact between the U.S., Britain and Australia and fresh calls for Europe to end its U.S. military dependence, France remains firmly anchored in the alliance.

"I fully understand France's disappointment. At the same time, NATO allies agree on the big picture, on the most important challenges, and that is that we have to stand together" to confront global challenges, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told The Associated Press this week.

To ease tensions, U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron weighed in. A statement after their phone call conceded that Europe can provide its own security. The U.S., it said, "recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO."

To help France swallow the loss of its massive contract in Australia to U.S. nuclear submarine makers, Macron won a commitment from Biden to boost support for French-led counter-terrorism operations in Africa's restive Sahel region.

A face-saving offer was needed, because France's reaction to the AUKUS defense agreement was almost as surprising as the announcement of the pact itself. Paris claimed it got a "stab in the back" from its allies.

For many European officials, the heated French reaction was partly due to the election cycle in the EU's two heavyweight countries. Germans voted Sunday and French citizens head to the polls in April. Some said it was just a question of waiting "for the dust to settle."

That said, the fallout from the chaotic Afghanistan exit and the U.S. maneuvering for the defense contract have disappointed many allies. Some see early in the Biden presidency a continuation in form, if not in style, of former President Donald Trump's "America First" policy. 

With the U.S. now focused on the threat posed by China, calls are multiplying for Europe to ensure its "strategic autonomy" to avoid debacles like the chaotic evacuations from Kabul's airport. The idea of a 5,000-strong rapidly deployable EU stand-by force is being floated. 

The reality, however, is that NATO already has a similar contingent – the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, with around 5,000 ground troops that officials can quickly deploy to respond to security threats.

The challenge – beyond getting 30 nations to agree to use it – is drumming up equipment and personnel, including from many of the 22 EU countries that are also members of the world's biggest security alliance, so it's difficult to see how a European force might be resourced.

Moreover, there is no consensus in Europe to establish a separate force. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland all count on the U.S. security umbrella to deal with an increasingly assertive Russia.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark backed Biden and warned France on Thursday against turning "concrete challenges, which will always exist between allies, into something they should not be."

Germany is caught in the middle. "The trauma of the Trump years convinced Germany to indulge France's vision of strategic autonomy without ever fully endorsing it," said Noah Barkin, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund think-tank's Asia Program.

France's fierce reaction to its lost submarine deal "puts Germany in the awkward position of having to choose between its closest ally in Europe and a Biden administration that has worked overtime to lure Berlin into its orbit," Barkin said.

Ultimately, it's unlikely that the French-U.S. spat will pose more of a threat to NATO, or France's place in it, than, say, the security challenge posed by Turkey's purchase of Russian missile defense systems.

As he took command in Norfolk on Thursday, Lavigne said that NATO's adaptation is "the only possible way to collectively overcome threats of all kinds, be it terrorism, conventional and nuclear, or emerging threats from new domains like cyber, space or cognitive warfare."

"I am here to serve NATO, and I will devote, as always, all my will," the French general said.


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