The details of this agreement may appear somewhat convoluted. But it’s not the details that have made the French government livid. The French were actively deceived for months on end, by the so-called friends who claim to be their oldest and closest allies. The outrage in Paris is palpable — and it is justified.
The French reaction has been more dramatic than in any other diplomatic spat in recent memory, including the embarrassing “freedom fries” standoff in the United States over France’s refusal to support the George W. Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. President Emmanuel Macron recalled France’s ambassadors to Australia and the United States, declining to withdraw France’s ambassador to Britain as a slight. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the submarine agreement a “stab in the back.”
After a week of histrionics, the waters seem to have calmed. President Biden spoke with Macron on Wednesday, and “agreed that the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners,” according to a readout of the call from the Élysée Palace, the seat of the French presidency. Biden paid lip service to supporting “a stronger and more capable European defense,” and Macron agreed to send his ambassador, Philippe Étienne, back to Washington next week.
In the French media, there has been much hand-wringing over the soul searching that now must happen. Among many French commentators, there have been renewed calls for “strategic autonomy,” the buzzwords of the Macron era, which mean that France — and Europe — should pursue its own ends without reliance on the United States. The suggestion in the readout of the Biden-Macron call that the United States is committed to bolstering some version of this agenda will only advance the discussion.
Without question, the diplomatic standoff should be a moment of reckoning, both for the Biden administration and for France.
No matter how much of an accomplishment the so-called AUKUS agreement is — and it’s a huge accomplishment — the unavoidable reality is that it looks a bit like amateur hour on Pennsylvania Avenue, just weeks after the administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Members of the Biden team should assess whether alienating and publicly humiliating a historic ally was really a necessary price to pay. No matter what they conclude, they will have to exert significant energy repairing ties with France, whose anger had begun to reverberate around Europe. Biden and Macron will meet in Europe next month, which will be a moment to watch.
But the AUKUS alliance should also prompt reflection in Paris, as blind rage seems increasingly unlikely to achieve any other objective than showing the world that France is really, really mad. One wonders what it will accomplish other than furnishing Macron and his allies with various “Love Actually” moments — publicly standing up to the Big Bad Wolf of Billy Bob Biden and proudly laying claim to, say, Timothée Chalamet’s left foot.
Few in Paris seem to be asking why Australia opted to approach the United States and Britain for a new defense partnership, entirely cutting France out of the picture. Perhaps it’s too soon for this kind of reflection, but vis-a-vis China, Australia clearly does not see France or the European Union as credible alternatives to the U.S. security guarantee.
Why might that be? In the midst of their — again, entirely legitimate — anger, various French officials, both current and former, have said that they see China not as an enemy but as a rival and competitor. None of this excuses the United States’ conduct, but it might put things in perspective. As Philip Stephens wrote in the Financial Times, France and Europe should “acknowledge that when the choice is between U.S. arrogance and Chinese hegemony, there is only one side to be on.”
Ever since it learned of AUKUS, France has been speaking as though it is the voice of Europe, and the E.U. seems more willing than usual to indulge this fantasy.
“One of our Member States has been treated in a way that is not acceptable. We want to know what happened and why. We have to clarify that before we can go on with business as usual,” Ursula von der Leyen, the E.U. Commission president, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Other European leaders have made similar statements, but it’s unclear what kind of actions will follow, if any. The rhetoric of the German election campaign recently has not suggested that Europe’s richest nation is interested in stepping up to assume additional continental security concerns.
It seems unlikely that Europe will allow a bilateral dust-up to dominate its agenda for long. That might be an even more stinging message for Paris to receive. Speaking in New York before a U.N. summit, Le Drian urged Europeans to “think hard.” But what happens if they do, and then don’t follow France?