PARIS — The evidence accumulates that while France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy has remarkable political judgment and instincts in domestic affairs, and thus far even in dealing with the European Union, he is woefully ill-equipped in international understanding and judgment.

This tends to be a national handicap, the French having until very recently been reluctant travelers and home vacationers, and generally convinced of the superiority of their own nation and the French intelligence, honed as it is on the sharpening stone of Cartesian logic (a logic that also does not always travel well).

Thus they not infrequently fail to know what they are talking about when dealing with foreign countries. They have a long record of miscalculating British diplomacy and policy intentions. On Germany, they have not been very good, but historically there has been nothing complicated for a Frenchman to know about Germany.

The majority tend to have questionable records on understanding Americans, treating them in terms of what they see on television and in the movies. De Gaulle himself (justly) described us as a nation that “brings to great affairs elementary feelings and a complicated policy.” Not bad.

President Sarkozy likes the uncomplicated view, and has decided that France should “reintegrate” NATO’s military command, from which they have been absent since De Gaulle’s time. Parliament so voted on Tuesday (but only on a confidence vote). In the face of considerable French opposition, Sarkozy has explained this as meaning France is “reclaiming its proper place in NATO.” That makes it seem very simple: Dust the offices, reset the clocks, catch up on the gossip, review the dossiers, and start issuing orders.

This last was the decisive problem when Jacques Chirac was president in 1995-97 and tried the same thing, expecting France to be given the NATO Southern Naval Command in the Mediterranean. The United States (and the rest) wouldn’t give it to him, so the whole affair fell through, leaving annoyance on both sides.

This time, precautions have been taken and the possibilities for a major French post sounded out, and while Sarkozy’s friends pretend that these are significant commands, they so far have been a planning operation at NATO Atlantic headquarters in Virginia or another naval command in Portugal, on Europe’s southwestern sea approaches.

The interesting question is: Why bother? NATO is on its last legs, operationally irrelevant in the terms in which it was conceived, to provide the land defense of Western Europe against the Soviet Union. It no longer has a serious European security function since there is no longer a threat in Europe.

The perpetuation of NATO has proved stupid as well as tragic, since the big post-Cold War push to take in the Warsaw Pact countries as well as the Baltic states, despite explicit or implicit assurances otherwise, did have a political and moral meaning. These were the countries that had suffered at the hands of the Soviet Union, and making them members had high significance and conveyed an assurance of protection as well.

Once Washington and its allies decided that Russia and what remained of its bloc were in distress in making the transition to what was supposed to be a partnership with the Western countries, someone in Washington decided that an opportune moment had arrived to humiliate and diminish the new Russia by commencing to dismantle it — with the results we all know.

To have sought cooperative methods for accomplishing this would have been one thing. To offer unqualified NATO membership to states historically attached to Russia was a deliberate act of triumphalism. It also went against NATO’s own norms for membership, which bar states with unresolved ethnic, linguistic, territorial or frontier conflicts (as Ukraine and Georgia both have).

Of course, Russia claims a regional sphere of interest; so does the United States, which has just chided El Salvador for electing a leftist president. There has been discussion in Washington of sending the American Army to the Mexican border because of the disorders inside Mexico.

NATO has always been a military adjunct to the United States, and it was not useful for Georgia to provide a blatant demonstration of the fact that the alliance no longer exists on its original terms of cooperation and collective defense.

It is not even a European security organization, able to replace a European Union military force, because it is American, not European. NATO is no longer in a position to engage Russia on continental issues for the same reason. If Russia wants seriously to talk, it will go to Washington.

NATO contingents currently are engaged in a losing war in Afghanistan, and soon may be in another one in Pakistan; in neither of which does it possess political or military command authority — nor for that matter, serious national interest.

Since the time of Charles de Gaulle, France has maintained a cooperative relationship with NATO that has enabled it to function in alliance with NATO when desirable and to function in its own interests elsewhere when it so chooses. It is the one European country with an autonomous nuclear deterrent force, and ground, air and naval forces that operate autonomously under national command — true of no other West European military power. This has given it greater international influence than any other European state. Why should Sarkozy give this up?

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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