NATO À La Carte, And Other Ways France Tried to Resist American Hegemony
In his most recent book The World America Made, Robert Kagan offers an account of the peculiarities that characterize the world order led by the United States. Among the most outstanding of them is the unprecedented acceptance of American leadership. The United States never goes to wars without a handful of allies on its side: even the unpopular invasion in Afghanistan was eventually joined by more than forty nations. Moreover, states with no geopolitical stakes in the initiatives the U.S. takes support them out of mere belief in American commitment to human rights and democracy. Even the security dilemma was effectively defied by the U.S., claims Kagan, since America’s arms buildup in the 1980s and 1990s was accompanied by significant reduction in military capabilities in many world regions. The world portrayed by Kagan’s work depicts the U.S.’ having decisively won the “hearts and minds” of so many wealthy and powerful countries that the American order is nearly impossible to undermine. In the reality, however, there are many doubts about the necessity and legitimacy of American leadership. Apart from Washington’s long-standing rivals, such as China, Iran, and Russia, one of the closest and most powerful allies of the U.S., France, is accustomed to renouncing the American order, and has been doing so for decades. France’s uneasiness with U.S. preeminence was never pronounced enough to shatter the world order, let alone give a reason to coin France as a revisionist state. However, this persisting suspicion of American power coming from one of its most trusted partners has shaped France’s foreign policy, as well as French-American relations, in a few profound ways. Beginning with Charles de Gaulle’s call for a “Europe of Europeans,” Paris was oftentimes a reluctant and confrontational ally. This hesitancy to stand by U.S.’ side dispels any illusion about the cohesion of American order, which, at some point or another, has failed the test of legitimacy in the eyes of not only its rivals but its closest friends.
When the French-American alliance was born in 1778, it was born out of parallel self-interest, not shared ideals. More than two centuries later, the two countries’ self-interests remain similar, and their cooperation in military, political, and intelligence areas are strong. Yet, it was not always consistent. U.S.-French relations went through several major crises that unsettled the Western alliance and showcased France’s persistent frustration with being subordinate to America. During the Cold War days, President Charles de Gaulle’s vision of a Europe led by Europeans instead of Americans created an additional divide, and this time within the Western block. An unparalleled initiative undertaken by de Gaulle to withdraw French troops from NATO and expel NATO forces from France shattered confidence in the Alliance’s ability to counter the Soviet military. De Gaulle, however, saw NATO primarily not as a defense mechanism against the USSR but as a “hated symbol of U.S. hegemony.” Distancing from it was a way to emancipate France from American influence and pursue an independent foreign policy. The General’s decision to demand the removal of NATO headquarters from Paris forced the relocation of 100,000 U.S. and NATO personnel and over one million ton of supplies and equipment – perhaps the least of the problems America was facing in dealing with France at the time. The four immediate successors of de Gaulle did not deviate from his foreign policy, and Paris remained partially withdrawn from the Alliance for forty-three years. When Nicolas Sarkozy, one of France’s most pro-American leaders, did choose to reverse the de Gaulle’s decision and return to NATO in 2009, the elite and media opposition to the alignment with the United States and rapprochement with NATO was still strong.
But before France returned to NATO as a full-fledged member, it made several attempts to undermine the organization’s influence on the continent, which ultimately undermined American power. After the disappearance of the U.S.’ main geo-political rival with the collapse of the USSR, France revived its calls for a European security system built free of American influence. As hesitant as the French were to endorse NATO’s expansion that was initiated by the U.S., they had little ability to counter it. What the could do is endorse proposals that countered NATO’s enlargement. France waged what Marie-Claude Plantin of the University of Lyon calls a kind of “guerrilla warfare” against any changes to strengthen American influence in the region. Plantin, in her book The Future of Nato, describes how the French government initially voiced opposition to initiatives as moderate as the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, due to a belief that it to be a political tool for Americans to exercise control over Europe. During his term, French President Mitterrand chose the Western European Union as the organization to counter U.S. military monopoly in the region. Eventually, Franco-German units, later joined by Belgium, Luxembourg, and Spain, were supposed to form the nucleuses for an independent European military force, but it later became evident that the U.S. military predominance and, consequently, NATO, could not easily be uprooted. After failing to shift focus from NATO to the EU/WEU tandem, Mitterrand attempted to Europeanize the North Atlantic Alliance. This undertaking, too, had little success, and the French leadership was compelled to accept NATO’s primacy in the matters of European security.
Today, the United States and France are undoubtedly long-standing allies with many interests and values. Nevertheless, what created major divides between the two countries in the past were principal disagreements over important international issues.. These divides not only disrupted the bilateral relationship between the two nations but also shattered confidence in one of the U.S.’ most important military alliances. While clashes of interest between rival powers are natural, such turbulences in a relationship with what many see as a traditional American ally are more alarming. Even though President Macron and President Trump now appear to be on the same wavelength about French-American relations, it was American unilateralism and arrogance that have always ignited French dissent of U.S. foreign policy – and the current administration appears to be susceptible to both. Macron’s pragmatism, for now, outweighs traditional geopolitical uneasiness with which France treats its relationship with the U.S., but as Kagan remarks, the wide acceptance America enjoys should never be confused with “helpless tolerance of U.S. predominance.” French historical resistance of American hegemony was ever hardly an attempt to drastically rewrite the rules of the game, yet it is not to be discounted as mere whims of French nationalism, or ego clashes of presidential regimes. If the U.S. is interested in preserving its primacy, it should keep an eye on its friends as much as on its enemies. Ultimately, the world America made might not have rivals powerful enough to undermine it, but does it have admirers enthusiastic enough to sustain it?