On signing the North Atlantic Treaty, countries voluntarily commit themselves to participate in the Organization’s military activities and political consultations. Even though each and every signatory to the Treaty is subject to the obligations of the Treaty, there still remains a certain degree of flexibility, allowing members to choose how they want to participate in it. The memberships of Iceland and France are a fine example of this point.
When Iceland signed the Treaty back in 1949, the country did not have and continues to not have armed forces. There is no legal issue with respect to forming them, but Iceland has decided not to have one anyway. However, Iceland does have a Coast Guard, a voluntary expeditionary peacekeeping force, a national police force and an air defence system. Since 1951, Iceland has also had a bilateral defence agreement with the United States. Later in 2006, US forces were withdrawn from the country, but the defence agreement still remains valid. Since 2008, air policing of Iceland has been conducted by NATO Allies on a periodic basis.
In 1966, President Charles de Gaulle took the decision to withdraw France from the integrated military structure of NATO. This reflected their desire for a better, more sophisticated military independence, especially vis-à-vis the United States, as well as their refusal to integrate the nuclear deterrent of France or accept any kind of control over its armed forces.
Therefore, in practice, while France continues to fully participate in the political activities of the Organization, it no longer represents itself on certain committees such as the Nuclear Planning Group and the Defence Planning Committee. This decision also meant that French forces would be removed from NATO commands as well as foreign forces from French territory. The stationing of foreign weapons, which included nuclear weapons, was also banned. The political headquarters of NATO, which was based in Paris since 1952, and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe or SHAPE, which was in Rocquencourt since 1951, were also moved to Belgium.
Despite its withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military structure, France signed two technical agreements with the Alliance, setting up procedures in case a Soviet aggression takes place. Ever since the Berlin Wall was broken down in 1989, France has constantly contributed troops to their military operations, making it one of NATO’s largest troop-contributing states. In addition, France is also NATO’s fourth-largest contributor to the military budget. From the early 1990s, France began distancing itself from its participation at the meetings of defence ministers at Seville (from 1994) as well as the presence of French officers in Allied Command Transformation and Allied Command Operations structures (from 2003).
At the Strasbourg/Kehl Summit in April 2009, France officially announced that it would fully participate in NATO structures.