Security & Defense

Symbolism of the New NATO Headquarters

On May 25th, the new NATO Headquarters was inaugurated by the Heads of  State and Government of the 28 member states (soon to become 29 with the accession of Montenegro).

Although this event only received moderate press coverage and seems to have gone unnoticed by most people, I think this affair holds great symbolism for the future of the Alliance – and the world.


The new NATO headquarters – Photo: NATO

The inauguration of this new head office for the transatlantic alliance screams to the world that NATO is not dead, in fact very far from it. Those who called it obsolete after the collapse of the USSR have been proven wrong: the organization survived the disappearance of the conditions that first brought it to life, namely the East-West confrontation of the Cold War.

This would indeed confirm the thesis put forward by many IR scholars: R.O. Keohane’s After Hegemony (1984) analyzes the stickiness of organizations even after the decline of US hegemony, and the possible maintenance of organizations even after the conditions that made it possible had disappeared; and P. A. Weitsman’s 2004 article explains the formation of alliances for both internal and external purposes – namely that such an endeavour can be aimed at protecting oneself against an enemy by pooling resources, but also by deterring conflict between members. In the case of NATO, both arguments seem to hold up. And the new headquarters signifies just that. It shows that NATO is set in stone and the need for it is still a reality.

NATO Headquarters


NATO headquarters, Palais de Chaillot – Photo: NATO

Initially, NATO was located in London, at 13 Belgrave Square. In 1952, it moved in to Paris, first to Palais de Chaillot and then to Porte Dauphine in 1960. However, ensuing Charles de Gaulle’s withdrawal of France from the Integrated Military Command, the Alliance had to move elsewhere, and found shelter in prefabs on the outskirts of Brussels, halfway between the city and the airport – it so happened that the chosen location “was once an airfield used by Nazi Germany during World War Two”.

A new headquarters has been needed since then, and increasingly so with the expansion of membership, guest representations and partners, visitors, and widening of activities. It was finally in 1999, at the annual Summit then held in Washington, that the construction of a new building was approved.

Finally, during the Brussels Summit in 2017, host nation Belgium handed over the new building, located across the street from the old HQ, to the Alliance in the presence of the 28 heads of states or governments. For a virtual tour, see here.

The New Headquarters

Although the cost of the building itself has been widely criticized for the amount of the price tag and going over budget, no one seems to have questioned the initiative itself. First, because the project has been in the pipeline for decades, but also because it has been perceived and showcased as a necessary event, especially by Ander Fogh Rasmussen, former Secretary General of the Alliance. The move to a new modern-looking building was there to put the final nail into the old Cold War order’s coffin, along with structural reforms and a new strategic concept inaugurated during his mandate.

Berlin wall

The new building displays two panels of the Berlin Wall, and “a piece of the wreckage from the 107th floor of one of the Twin Towers in New York” destroyed on 9/11, two landmarks of NATO history – Photo: NATO

NATO has described the inauguration and the move as a symbol of modernization of the Alliance, finally adapting the bureaucratic structure to the needs of the twenty-first century. NATO’s website comments on the architecture of the construction:

“The design of the new NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, reflects the unity and adaptability of the Alliance. State-of-the-art facilities will enable the building to respond to the Alliance’s evolving needs long into the future, while its forward-looking design delivers a sustainable building that significantly reduces the Organization’s environmental footprint.”

Sustainability can here be understood in two distinct ways. The sentence clearly appeals to the energy-efficient materials, collection of rain water, use of natural light, etc., used to reduce the environmental imprint of such a structure. It can also be interpreted in terms of long-term commitment. By inaugurating this new building, NATO declares to the world that it is here to stay.

Symbolism of a New HQ

And what is more clear than a new HQ to do that? When it was finally decided to start the construction, NATO was still in a period of redefinition of its mission, amidst the US-led airstrikes in Kosovo and the ensuing controversies.

9/11 acted as the ultimate turning point for the Alliance, whose mission was shifted to fighting terrorism and external threats to the Allies. And even if Russia has made its way back onto the international scene and is now a source of insecurity for the Eastern allies that needs to be reckoned with, NATO is no longer the same alliance that it once was.

NATO has changed over the years – the Cold War brought it to life, but that is not what is keeping it alive. Rather, it is a commitment to peace. And it can arguably be labelled one of the most successful organizations for its ability to survive and reinvent itself throughout the years – even though this has not happened without controversy.

It is a forward-looking, modernizing military structure that keeps adapting to the current security needs and threats. The East-West feud is no longer the leitmotiv for the organization – discrepancies between East and South, between threats coming from Russia and those originating from the Mediterranean and the Middle East, make most of the discussions internally.

New NATO Headquarters Handover Ceremony and Fly-past - Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government in Brussels

New NATO headquarters handover and fly-past, May 25th, 2017 – Photo: NATO

So, Keohane may be right: the conditions that bring an organization into being do not need to be sustained in order for an alliance to survive. Weitsman’s insights are also certainly true: one also needs to look into what happens within the Alliance, and in spite of its resilience, NATO is not without its problems, especially in terms of defining its current priorities. The Alliance is a token of peace in Europe, within its members despite their differences. Weitsman indeed argued that “under certain circumstances, adversaries may have incentives to form alliances with each other, either to react to other threats confronting them or to contain or manage the threat they face from each other” (Weitsman, 2004, p.2). Today, this entails keeping the continent together, as well as ensuring that the US does not disengage despite isolationist tendencies in recent years. NATO is also the reflection of a continent that is faced with external threats that cannot be fought off without unity in the face of adversity, and mutual help.

A new, flashy building thus sends a message to the outside world, both to detractors and admirers, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is still relevant in this day and age; but it also sends a message to its members: a message of hope, a boost to morale and an encouragement to follow the Alliance into the future.

Security & Defense

France & NATO – pt.4

[Click here to read part 1]

[Click here to read part 2]

[Click here to read part 3]

France, NATO and the EU

Throughout France’s 2013 White Paper on NATO, the EU is omnipresent. Even though it is clearly stated that “NATO and the European Union are not in competition” common sense would suggest otherwise. First, a strong NATO cannot happen without a strong EU. Second, it is stated that NATO should take into account European defence industry to develop smart defence. It is common knowledge that France has always been a strong supporter of a Europe de la Défence project, which is often thought that Paris would be eager to let it replace the Alliance. Indeed, “France will continue to support the European initiative aimed at sharing and pooling military capabilities.” The creation of the Weimar initiative with Poland and Germany confirms France’s determination to increase the EU’s military dimension, a project in which Paris is deeply involved.

The EU and NATO, two organizations serving complimentary purposes

However, the White Paper suggests the complementary posture of the two organizations, emphasizing their diverging scopes, interdependence in terms of operation and crisis resolution and values. France intends to reinforce the European pillar within NATO to shift the responsibilities from North America to the Old Continent when it comes to Europe’s security concerns. Capitalizing on its strong positions in both organizations, France Continue reading

Security & Defense

France & NATO – pt.3

[Click here to read part 1]

[Click here to read part 2]

The French Government’s Vision of NATO

In order to determine the current importance of NATO for the French government, it is important to analyse the latest White Paper on Defense and National Security, which was published by Francois Hollande’s government in 2013. The issues covered are the new political landscape France has to evolve in, the strategic priorities, France role in NATO and the EU, how and with which tools to realize those goals.

French White Paper - Defence and National Security, 2013

French White Paper – Defence and National Security, 2013

The White Paper clearly states that France acknowledges the importance of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance as both sides of the Ocean are linked by history and common values. NATO thus gathers Europe and North America around common objectives, including collective defense on which France also depends on for its defence and security.  The official stance on the reintegration into the Integrated Military Structures explains the importance of the gesture which was a natural one. France has, according to the White Paper, retrieved its “rightful place” in the Alliance. As a founding member and one the biggest contributors, France now holds the power it deserves considering these two elements.

France and International Organizations

The French government sees its engagement in both NATO and the EU as indispensable in order to attain its strategic goals and ensure its security. Three possible alternatives are Continue reading

Security & Defense

France & NATO – pt.2

[Click here to read pt.1]

A Divergent Approach to the Alliance

France reintegration into the NATO Integrated Military Structures in 2009 did not come as a total surprise as France had been moving closer to the IMSs for decades. François Mitterrand, followed by former Jacques Chirac, had previously attempted to fully reintegrate NATO, without success as the circumstances did not seem right at the time. The reintegration, announced by Nicolas Sarkozy

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy announces in Paris that France would rejoin NATO's integrated military command on March 11, 2009

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy announces in Paris that France would rejoin NATO’s integrated military command on March 11, 2009, more than 40 years after his predecessor Charles de Gaulle pulled out of the alliance’s inner circle. (Photo: AFP PHOTO POOL / Philippe Wojazer)

therefore did not mark a break in French relations with the Alliance, it only acted as a natural result to the process in place. However, the reintegration did not mean that France would submit itself to all of NATO’s demands, and what Paris had established as his exceptions would remain. These include: “(1) France’s nuclear weapons would remain under national control; (2) France would maintain control over the deployment of French troops in any military operations; (3) France would not put its troops under NATO control in peacetime”. Beyond those three elements that were excluded from the negotiations all along the “creeping reintegration” Continue reading

Security & Defense

France & NATO – pt.1

France in NATO

France, as a member of the United Nations Security Council, founding member of the European Union and one of the biggest contributors to the NATO, has been forced to adapt to today’s security challenges as the security landscape has drastically evolved since the Cold War. One of the most marking events was the reintegration of the country into the Integrated Military Structures (IMs) of NATO in 2009.

The reintegration caused little change as France has always remained one of the biggest stakeholders in the Alliance. It was however feared that 2009 marked the end of Paris’s sovereignty and political independence to the benefit of the USA who lead NATO. It is Continue reading

Français, Security & Defense

Séminaire jeune de l’IHEDN – J4&5

J4 – Visite de la base aérienne de Creil :

Etablissement Géographique Interarmé ; Unité Française de Vérification ; Etat-major Interarmé de Force et d’Entrainement, Centre Militaire d’Observation Satellites …


Base de Creil (Mirage, CASA)

Cette base, située au Nord de Paris est le lieu de départ de nombreux avions de type CASA, utilisés notamment pour le transport de personnel, ou encore des journalistes qui suivent le Président dans ses déplacements. La piste de la base sera bientôt fermée afin d’être déplacée vers Evreux. La région Nord sera ainsi dépourvue de base aérienne.

L’organisation des forces armées est bien plus Continue reading

Security & Defense

93ème séminaire jeune de l’IHEDN – J2

Cette deuxième de comité suit le même schéma que la première, mais avec cette fois ci un focus sur l’Etat de la France aujourd’hui en matinée et sur les retours d’expérience (retex) d’opérations l’après-midi.

Voici les choses à retenir de la journée :

  • Les effectifs à la disposition de l’armée française ne cessent de décroitre, et atteignent désormais des forces comparables à celles de l’époque de Louis XIV bien que la population soit 3 fois plus importante aujourd’hui. Bien entendu, les corps-à-corps ont disparu et les guerres font moins de mort. L’effectif humain reste tout de même primordial à la fois par la force qui découle de sa présence mais aussi parce que la technologie ne peut pas se substituer à la composante humaine. Les forces françaises sont désormais en « surchauffe » avec des durées d’entrainement insuffisantes, des déploiements trop longs et des missions en manque d’effectif. On observe ainsi une démoralisation des troupes qui résulte de la corrélation entre ambitions évoquées dans le Livre Blanc de la Défense et les moyens disponibles.
  • La France a perdu plus de 40% de ses effectifs militaires entre 1992 et 2012. Cela n’aurait été possible dans aucun autre secteur. Mais les militaires ne font pas la grève…
  • La France possède 60 000 forces opérationnelles, ce qui permet le déploiement simultané de 22 000 hommes. Avec la présence française à travers le monde, notamment au Mali, en Centrafrique, à Barkhan, au Liban ainsi que dans les Antilles, l’Opération Sentinelle mise en place pour des raisons anti-terroristes et qui mobilise 9 000 soldats en métropole rajoute un poids sur les effectifs déjà en flux tendu du pays.
  • Les moyens budgétaires à la disposition de l’armée forcent une réduction des équipements, à la suite de laquelle on observe une surutilisation des équipements mais aussi le recours aux bricolages, c’est-à-dire l’utilisation des armes et autres pour des missions auxquelles elles n’étaient pas destinées. L’armée française privilégie ainsi l’achat d’outils polyvalents pouvant servir sur des théâtres d’opération divers et à des buts variés.
  • La loi de programmation prévue dans le Livre Blanc de 2013 a été ajusté en 2015, prévoyant ainsi la mise à disposition de 3,8 milliards d’euros supplémentaires aux armées sur les 4 prochaines années. Bien que cela reste insuffisant, le but est ainsi de pouvoir augmenter le nombre de troupes, de 66 000 à 77 000 personnels.
  • Le Livre Blanc de la Défense de 2013 ressert la zone d’intérêt autour de la France en soustrayant une partie de l’Asie, notamment l’Inde, mais aussi de la Mauritanie, de l’Asie Pacifique et de l’Afghanistan. Le focus est ainsi mis sur les frontières directes de l’UE et de l’environnement géographiquement proche (géographiquement et historiquement) de la France.
  • Les intérêts proclamés de la France aujourd’hui font écho à ceux affichés jadis par De Gaulle lors de la sortie de la France du Commandement Intégré de l’OTAN. L’accès est mis sur la protection du territoire nationale (métropole, territoires d’outre mers, ZEE) ; maintien de la paix et de la stabilité dans les zones clés évoquées dans le point précédent ; lutte contre le terrorisme et la prolifération nucléaire ; rôle de la France comme Nation-cadre dans des missions extérieures ; indépendance de l’initiative et de la stratégie de la France, qui s’illustre notamment par son indépendance nucléaire.
  • La France mise sur une tradition militaire renommée et polyvalente. Malgré la réduction des moyens, elle recherche le maintien de sa complétude, c’est-à-dire de sa capacité à intervenir par tous les moyens disponibles sur tous les théâtres d’opération. La France est aussi capable d’entrer en premier sur un théâtre, ce que peu de nations sont capables de faire (notamment au Mali, en Centrafrique, etc.).
  • En vue des défis notamment budgétaires, mais aussi compte tenu du changement du paysage sécuritaire de la France, cette dernière a intérêt à miser sur les alliances et partenariats, ne serait-ce que pour porter collectivement le poids des missions, mais aussi par le pooling and sharing, c’est-à-dire l’acquisition groupée d’appareils militaires dont l’utilisation est partagée entre les acheteurs (notamment avec l’Allemagne, mais aussi peut-être la Pologne, bien que les intérêts de cette dernière divergent de ceux de la France).
  • La France est le 4ème exportateur mondial d’armement. Le marché mondial des armes ne connait en effet pas la crise car le monde reste chrysogène et la solution militaire la réponse majoritairement adoptée par les Etats pour se prémunir contre les attaques et menaces.
  • Le secteur de l’industrie de défense reçoit d’importants investissements du gouvernement, ce qui permet le maintien de cette industrie en France, garantit l’approvisionnement des forces armées, et encourage la compétitivité de la France en la matière. Les exportations permettent la rentabilisation du secteur ainsi que de renforcer les partenaires qui se trouveraient en situation de crise.
  • Les exportations d’armement sont, par définition, interdites sauf exceptions. Ces exceptions sont déterminées par une analyse interministérielle des acheteurs potentiels et de ses intentions. L’autorisation de l’exportation doit se faire selon le respect des intérêts financiers et en terme de politique étrangère de la France, mais doit aussi s’inscrire dans la perspective du respect des Droits de l’Homme.
  • L’opération SANGARIS en République Centrafricaine (RCA) s’est fait suivant la demande du Président de la RCA, François Bozizé, alors que le pays était en proie à l’instabilité à cause des Séléka, groupuscule musulman semant la terreur dans le pays. 2 200 hommes sont déployés en continu depuis l’intervention française en décembre 2013. Le but est de soutenir les forces de l’Union Africaine, de ramener le niveau de sécurité le plus bas possible afin de pouvoir y mettre en place des infrastructures stables.