WASHINGTON — At his meetings with the G20 and NATO later this month in Europe, U.S. President Barack Obama will aim to make good on his campaign pledge to “restore America’s standing abroad.” In contrast to his predecessor, he faces a European public wildly enthusiastic about his election and European leaders eager to be seen with him. He’ll need this enthusiasm, given differences over how to deal with the economic crisis and questions about whether Europeans are willing to do more in Afghanistan. He will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of NATO, bolstered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement that he will bring France back into the military wing of NATO, reversing Charles de Gaulle’s decision of 40 years ago.
De Gaulle wanted to assure France’s independence from NATO, which he saw as dominated by the United States, but Sarkozy brims with confidence that it is better for France to be in than out. France is contributing troops to NATO missions in Afghanistan and other parts of the world, he argues, so why wouldn’t it want to be part of the decision-making? His decision sparked debate among French officials, including the unlikely scenario of French socialists arguing that France should keep its independence. But Sarkozy has the people on his side: 62 percent of the French public sees NATO as essential to the country's security, according to the German Marshall Fund’s “Transatlantic Trends” public opinion poll.
Sarkozy’s decision ends the idea that France can be both an ally and be at arm’s length from the United States, but there is skepticism about its practical impact. With France in NATO, it should make it easier for the European Union to move forward on bolstering its own defense institutions, which Sarkozy has said is a top priority. He insists that France inside NATO ensures there will be no conflict between NATO and the EU. Europeans may have concerns in Africa, for example, that they wish to pursue independently of the United States. Although some Europeans have worried about whether the United States will support a greater global role for the EU, American presidents from both parties have long emphasized that a stronger EU will be a stronger partner for the United States.
Questions remain about whether France’s decision will lead to greater cooperation or contributions to Afghanistan, the test case for NATO’s continued relevance. Obama has announced his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and increase troops in Afghanistan, which he sees as the primary battleground with Al Qaeda.
Last summer in Berlin, candidate Obama called upon Europeans to do more in Afghanistan. Since then, there have been unresolved debates about strategy and mission on both sides of the Atlantic. Europeans criticized the Bush administration for focusing too heavily on the military side of the mission, concerns that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged in his own calls for increased diplomatic engagement. Official NATO policy calls for a “comprehensive strategy” that combines the military effort to combat the Taliban and the economic effort for reconstruction. And Obama should arrive at the NATO summit having concluded a policy review for Afghanistan that sees a solution in a broader regional strategy that includes neighboring Pakistan.
Obama is under pressure to produce results. While NATO’s anniversary is rightly a moment for celebration, the problems in Afghanistan are growing. Last year, France sent an additional 700 troops to Afghanistan, but, like many NATO members, it says it is overstretched and cannot do more. Given European reluctance to support combat, Obama may focus on securing greater European contributions to the non-military needs of economic reconstruction, training of Afghan police and military forces, and combating narcotics production. This may be the most pragmatic way forward, but allies like the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands warn that there limits to their willingness to bear a disproportionate share of casualties while others restrict their troops from combat.
The economic crisis creates additional pressures on countries’ ability to promise new resources, but President Obama and European leaders don’t have the luxury of waiting for the economy to recover before addressing Afghanistan. France’s rejoining the military wing of NATO is a welcome gesture, but the United States and Europe need to show the world that they can act together again.
John K. Glenn is Director of Foreign Policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe.