On March 7, 1966, Charles de Gaulle slammed the door on the Americans, shut down the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's headquarters, which had been set up in France when the alliance was founded in 1949, and instructed his colleague Lyndon B. Johnson to remove all American soldiers from French soil.
Johnson, so the story goes, hit back. "Does that include those buried in it?" he asked.
Since then, a great deal of water has flowed in the Seine, and in the Potomac, too. A black president is now living in the White House and an "American" president has settled in the Elysee Palace; but it nevertheless seems that there has not been such a stormy debate in France for a long time as over Nicolas Sarkozy's announcement that France will return to full membership in NATO.
The cries of despair over the "surrender" (to the Americans) and the "betrayal" (of the Gaullist heritage) are being heard in the right-wing camp, but the main opposition - an irony of history - is actually centered in the left wing. The very left wing that in 1966 attacked the "extremist nationalism" of de Gaulle is now bemoaning the "loss of French independence" and the "shattering of national consensus."
However the critics appear to be blind and more than a little hypocritical, because:
1. The geo-political reality that led de Gaulle to choose an independent security policy and to demonstrate the "grandeur" of France as a nuclear power no longer exists. The bi-polarized world has gone, the Warsaw Pact has collapsed and most of its members have joined NATO, which is busy today with missions dealing mainly with the struggle against terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons.
2. France is today the fourth largest contributor of money and manpower to the alliance. Sarkozy's decision should be viewed as the pinnacle of a long process in which France participated in all of NATO's major missions - Bosnia 1993, Kosovo 1999, and Afghanistan starting in 2001.
3. France is not losing its independence, as the critics claim. Today, too, it could have decided not to participate in the operation in Iraq as did Germany, Turkey, Spain and others at the time.
4. France is also not losing its influence. On the contrary, instead of fulfilling the dictates of others, it will be an active partner in determining policy. Two French generals will take the place of the Americans at the head of two of the major commands. One, in Virginia, is responsible for planning the future strategy of the alliance. The other, in Lisbon, is responsible for the force for swift intervention.
5. Perhaps more important than anything else was the condition on which Sarkozy hinged full membership in NATO, which will go into effect officially at the end of the week: that the European Union be allowed to promote a common foreign affairs and security policy.
His critics claimed that when France entered NATO, its partners in Europe would no longer have an incentive to promote European defense, but Sarkozy's move is aimed at just the opposite. If until now his country was suspected of attempts to dismantle NATO and to place a competing European army in its stead, now the fears will melt and France will be able to move forward on a dual track - the Europeanization of NATO itself and simultaneously the promoting of a common European security policy.
When U.S. Vice President Joe Biden expresses support for these aims and when President Barack Obama himself declares that they will contribute to "a stronger alliance and a stronger Europe," Sarkozy can begin dreaming about a new world in which there is "more France in Europe and more Europe in NATO," as his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said.
It is a world that Israel, too, will have to grow accustomed to.
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