France’s role in NATO is not called into question despite the American divide

BRUSSELS (AP) – As tensions between France and the United States simmered this week over an Indo-Pacific defense deal that sank a multibillion-dollar French submarine contract, a general Frenchman handed over a key NATO command center to a fellow French Air Force Officer.

At a ceremony Thursday in Norfolk, Virginia, General Philippe Lavigne took over Allied Command Transformation, where NATO conducts its strategic thinking, from General André Lanata, who had headed the center for three years.

This handover consolidated France’s position at the head of one of the two strategic command centers of the military alliance and of the only NATO headquarters in North America. French officers have held this post since 2009, when Paris overturned a 1966 decision to withdraw from NATO‘s command structure.

Lavigne’s appointment was announced in May. He was not influenced by the chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan which damaged the credibility of the United States, nor by the breach of submarine contracts, which led to the recall of French ambassadors and rumors according to which Paris could once again leave the integrated military structure of NATO.

Indeed, the change of command illustrates that even in the midst of the turmoil around the defense pact between the United States, Great Britain and Australia and new calls for Europe to end its dependence American military, France remains firmly anchored in the alliance.

“I fully understand the disappointment of France. At the same time, NATO allies agree on the big picture, on the most important challenges, and that is that we must stand united ”to face global challenges, said the secretary general from NATO Jens Stoltenberg to The Associated Press this week.

To ease tensions, US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron intervened. A statement after their phone call conceded that Europe can ensure its own security. The United States, he said, “recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, which positively contributes to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO”.

To help France swallow the loss of its huge Australian contract with US nuclear submarine makers, Macron secured a pledge from Biden to boost support for French-led counterterrorism operations in Africa’s turbulent Sahel region. .

A face-saving offer was needed, as France’s reaction to the AUKUS defense deal was almost as surprising as the announcement of the pact itself. Paris claimed to have received a “stab in the back” from its allies.

For many European officials, the strong French reaction was partly due to the electoral cycle in the two heavyweight countries of the EU. The Germans voted on Sunday and the French go to the polls in April. Some said it was just a matter of waiting “for the dust to settle.”

That said, the fallout from the chaotic exit from Afghanistan and the US maneuvering for the defense contract disappointed many allies. Some see the start of the Biden presidency as a continuation in form, if not in style, of former President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.

As the United States now focuses on the threat posed by China, calls are mounting for Europe to ensure its “strategic autonomy” to avoid debacles like the chaotic evacuations of Kabul airport. The idea of ​​a rapidly deployable EU standby force of 5,000 troops was launched.

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

The challenge – beyond accepting 30 nations to use it – is to mobilize equipment and personnel, including many of the EU 22 countries that are also members of the world’s largest security alliance. , so it is difficult to see how a European force could be resourced.

Moreover, there is no consensus in Europe to establish a separate force. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland all rely on the US security umbrella to face an increasingly assertive Russia.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen backed Biden and warned France on Thursday against transforming “concrete challenges, which will always exist between the allies, into something they should not be”.

Germany is caught in the middle. “The trauma of the Trump years convinced Germany to bend to France’s vision for strategic autonomy without ever fully endorsing it,” said Noah Barkin, visiting senior researcher in the German think tank’s Asia program Marshall Fund.

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 attract Berlin in its orbit, ”said Barkin.

Ultimately, the Franco-American feud is unlikely to pose a greater threat to NATO, or France’s place within it, than, say, the security challenge posed by NATO. Turkey’s purchase of Russian missile defense systems.

As he took command in Norfolk on Thursday, Lavigne said adapting NATO is “the only possible way to collectively overcome threats of all kinds, be it terrorism, conventional and nuclear,” or emerging threats from new areas such as cyber, space or cognitive warfare. “

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

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