In the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, before an international audience of 800 military personnel and civilians, French general Stephane Abrial became head of Allied Command Transformation. He is replacing outgoing US Marine Corps General James Mattis who remains head of the US Joint Forces Command.
It is the first time in the alliance’s 60-year history that a non-American has taken charge of NATO’s only strategic command in North America. Mattis called the event “historic” and a sign France had returned “lock, stock and barrel” to the heart of the alliance.
The US State Department congratulated Abrial on assuming the post.
“France, a founding member of the Alliance and a significant contributor to NATO operations across the globe, is a key partner of the United States in pursuit of transatlantic security goals,” said Ian Kelly, a State Department spokesman. “We look forward to working with General Abrial as he pursues NATO reform goals in his role.”
Also offering comments was NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who attended the ceremony and hailed Abrial’s appointment as “a significant milestone for the Atlantic alliance.”
France has only recently rejoined the alliance. It was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who reintegrated France back into NATO at a summit in April of this year after a four-decade absence.
NATO’s first Secretary-General, Lord Ismay, once famously stated that the organization’s goal was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”.
And France, under post-war President Charles de Gaulle, was a willing partner in that endeavor. But, de Gaulle often chafed under US leadership.
Doubts about the relationship between NATO’s European members, in particular France, and the United States ebbed and flowed, along with doubts over the credibility of NATO defense capabilities against the possible threat of a Soviet invasion.
It was these doubts that led to the development by France of an independent nuclear deterrent and the country’s subsequent withdrawal from NATO’s military structure in 1966.
Abrial a sign of new Franco-American cooperation
With the appointment of the 55-year-old Abrial, France’s renegade role appears to be over. It is also a reflection of the alliance’s changing mission.
The position is a key post intended to streamline efforts to integrate NATO military forces and prepare the alliance better for the challenges posed by terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cyber-defense and possible future crises related to climate change.
It also means that France and the United States will be working more closely together than they have in decades.
Abrial is a graduate of France’s Air Force Academy and earned his fighter pilot wings in 1976. He also spent a year as an exchange cadet at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado. He has spent much of his career overseas, including a stretch as a flight commander in Germany and as a detachment commander in Greece in the 1980s.
He also spent time at NATO headquarters in Brussels during the 1990s before becoming chief of staff of the French Air Force in July of 2006.
Abrial will be working from the Norfolk Naval Base in Virgina, the world’s largest, with 78 ships and 133 aircraft stationed there.