Alex Massie

Sarko’s NATO Problem

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Here's The Economist reporting developments in France:

THE Gaullist backlash against Nicolas Sarkozy's new Atlanticism has begun in earnest, and its new poster boy is Dominique de Villepin...

Not only did he denounce the French president's decision, which was warmly greeted by George Bush at last week's NATO summit in Bucharest, to send an extra French battalion (some 700 troops) to Afghanistan. He went on to chastise Sarkozy for planning to reintegrate France into NATO's military command structure. "Not only is the return of France to NATO not in our country's interests, but I also think it's dangerous," he said: "We will lose space to manoeuvre, space to be independent" as well as "an ability to act alone". NATO, after all, he said "is an organisation under American domination".

I have no brief for Monsieur de Villepin but his analysis is, of course, entirely correct. It is hard to see what France gains from full NATO membership and easy to see what it could very easily lose. Even if one holds the view that reintegration into NATO's command structure is as much a symbolic move as anything else it is indisputable that NATO is, and will remain, an "organisation under American domination".

Which is, equally understandably, how the United States likes it. One quite often runs across liberals (in the debased, modern American sense of the term) who deplore what they term George W Bush's imperialism while pining for the good old days of returning to, and respecting, international organisations and the great brotherhood of man. Well, up to a point. It turns out that they generally mean organisations such as NATO that are themselves part of the American imperial project. Soft empire counts and so does indirect empire and NATO has obviously been an important element in maintaining and, these days, seeking to expand American hegemony.

Now it's true that some on the American right complain that europe doesn't spend enough on defence and, in some respects, this may be a legitimate complaint. but the United States has also done everything it can to prevent the emergence of any viable, independent european defence capability, insisting that all defence measures be channelled through NATO - an organisation that, of course, the United States controls. Hence the paranoia with which any moves to a greater European defence capability are met on the American right, hence too that the site of a British prime minister even talking about defence to europeans prompts cries of treachery and rabid complaints that Britain is jeopardising the so-called "Special Relationship".

That being so, it's rich to complain that european countries are failing to pay enough for defence when, in the larger scheme of matters, the United States has indeed been prepared to pay for the defence of western europe against the Soviet menace. Who would pay for a chocolate bar themselves if they could also wait 15 minutes and receive one for free?

NATO's imbalance has other unfortunate consequences. The fact that the United States spends so much more on efence than do european countries while remaining, if you like, the defender of last resort creates a sense in Washington that, damn it, the ungrateful europeans should be grateful and fall into line with American objectives. (This is not a situation confined to the Bush years; it was present throughout the drab and often squalid Clinton interventions in the Balkans).

And what could be more imperial than the demand that allied vassals fall into line with the mother power's wishes? Cue, the displeasure felt in Wahsington when europe actually did something and blocked the startlnig suggestion that the Ukraine and Georgia become members of the alliance.

NATO exists as a means of advancing American interests and that it is, at bottom, an American plaything. Hence, for instance, Rudy Giuliani's lunatic proposal to brin Israel into NATO. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but it's hard to see why a closer relationship with NATO should necessarily or automatically also be in the French national interests. I should also say that it would be quite possible to welcome all this and see it as a positive example of the power and benefits of Empire. What seems silly is pretending that a pipe is not in fact a pipe.

PS: I also have limited time for US complaints that NATO ain't pulling its weight in Afghanistan: NATO offered help in Afghanistan in 2001 but was told that there was no need to trouble itself or worry since the United States had everythng in hand and, in any case, all these europeans would just get in the way.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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