- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

PARIS (AP) - France’s rejection of a global role for NATO puts Paris on a collision course with the bolder NATO ambitions of other powerful alliance members _ most notably the United States and Britain.

The debate comes as President Nicolas Sarkozy prepares to formalize France’s return to NATO’s integrated military command after an absence of 43 years. That will take place before France and Germany host the alliance’s 60th anniversary summit April 3-4.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday that France rejects the idea of a “global NATO” and urged talks with Russia before the Atlantic alliance expands.

Morin’s message could be especially relevant to Ivo Daalder, President Obama’s nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to NATO, who has written favorably about a “global NATO” and has criticized France’s and Germany’s deference to Russia on possible alliance expansion.

Analyst Francois Heisbourg said “global NATO” is a confusing term. Some say it’s about increasing membership beyond Europe and North America, which could be legally tricky given U.N.’s and the alliance’s own rules. Others read it as a call for a broader geographic range of military troubleshooting, he said.

“What is a problem is a global NATO open to membership outside of Europe and North America, like Japan or Australia or whatever; the notion that this becomes the West against the rest,” said Heisbourg, who heads the French state-funded Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

U.S. and British dominance of NATO prompted the late President Charles de Gaulle to vastly trim France’s ties to the alliance in 1966.

Morin, in the interview, also said a future NATO expansion _ such as into former Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia _ “cannot be decided without speaking to our Russian neighbor.”

The return of France into the military command, which could give Paris more say in operational planning and long-term vision for the alliance, spark long-overdue reform at NATO.

“France perceives NATO HQ to be a top heavy institution, with the number of staff operating civilian tasks disproportionately to those available to perform military duties,” Alastair Cameron of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute wrote in a paper last month.

“If carried out successfully, France’s reintegration should constitute an important landmark in the reform process” at NATO, he wrote.

The move by France is likely to spur competition with Britain _ western Europe’s other top military power _ for attention in an Obama administration that has not yet laid out its broad vision for NATO.

“(The British) are fairly cautious about what it will mean in terms of the French having access to new committees and new decisions,” said Cameron, who heads RUSI’s European security program.

France, with its boosted role, could look to assemble coalitions within NATO, while never giving up its penchant for being contrarian.

The French “are almost always fronting for a group of allies,” said Hunter. “You give the French a choice between being good cop or bad cop, and they’ll choose bad cop. It gives them influence.”

____

Jamey Keaten, an AP correspondent in the Paris bureau, has covered France since 2001.

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