FRANCE'S HALFWAY RETURN to the military institutions of NATO after three decades of haughty isolation represents a bow to the realities of the Bosnia intervention. Since its troops will be an integral part of the multinational peacekeeping force now forming, it naturally wants to be a full participant in all military decisions.
The United States should be gracious but wary in welcoming this step. France still refuses to be integrated into the NATO military chain of command, which is traditionally headed by an American general. And it still works on the assumption that the Americans will not keep their troops in Europe forever. When they leave, France wants to be a leader -- perhaps the leader -- of the "European pillar" of the Alliance.
In demanding in 1966 that U.S. forces leave France, Gen. Charles de Gaulle contended that Europe no longer faced an "immediate and menacing" threat from the Soviet Union. NATO's circumstances might indeed have changed then, but they have changed even more since the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Yugoslavia disintegrated, France initially accepted the view that this was a European problem to be settled by Europeans. But when the Europeans failed to impose peace on Bosnia, the need for U.S. power and leadership was something even Paris could not ignore.
What happens in Bosnia will mightily affect what is to happen with NATO. A successful venture would, in itself, redefine the Alliance as a peace-enforcement organization whose sway could extend beyond the confines of Europe. A failed operation, in contrast, could doom NATO as we know it. France would then be free at last from what General de Gaulle once called the "American protectorate." But it would also be faced with the need to protect itself from both the Germans and the Russians. Now torn by internal dissension, France faces a future in which its external pretensions and its capabilities might not match.