High Diplomatic Dudgeon

18 September 2021

France is angry. She has recalled her ambassadors from the US and Australia. Yesterday, not one but two major news organizations contacted me for comment. “I can’t help you,” I said, and was surprised when one of them reacted indignantly, saying “We were told you that you had encyclopedic knowledge of French politics. How can it be that you have nothing to say about this?” Well, I’m as susceptible to flattery as the next fellow, but no encyclopedic knowledge is required to figure this one out: France got cut out of negotiations that led to the scuttling of a lucrative submarine deal. Notice was also served that the “pivot to Asia” announced by Obama has now inflicted an insult on an old ally. For some reason, France chose to take this insult more seriously than any of the countless insults inflicted by Trump, no doubt because it involves cold hard cash and thousands of jobs.

But was France—or, rather, its young president—wise to react in such an obvious fit of pique? The move was at best impetuous. It will surely lead nowhere. France will have gotten mad without getting even, never a good idea in politics or diplomacy. What else is there to say—about France in this whole affair? Not much, it seems to me. That is why I declined both interview requests.

By contrast, there’s a good deal to say about what this contretemps reveals about US intentions and priorities, none of it good, in my opinion. I have been pleasantly surprised by the boldness of the Biden administration’s domestic agenda. Its foreign policy agenda is another matter. The move to supply Australia with a fleet of nuclear submarines is another step toward the assertive “encirclement” of China, intended to thwart, as the Times delicately puts it, the Middle Empire’s alleged “territorial ambitions.” But exactly what US policy is in regard to those territorial ambitions is not clear. How far will the US go if China chooses to test the limits by, say, seizing an island in the South China Sea? Or, heaven forbid, moving against Taiwan?

Perhaps the foreign policy establishment feels the need to flex its muscles in the wake of the humiliating end to the Afghan debacle. Perhaps the hope is that putting money into hardware will substitute, as so often in the past, for thinking through the wisdom of existing commitments and the actual interests of the United States in a world whose configuration has changed a good deal since those commitments were made. France could contribute constructively to this debate by exposing the contradictions at the heart of US policy, as it did during the Vietnam War and prior to the Iraq War. Its criticisms raised hackles in the US, but to a useful end. This latest expression of anger will raise hackles without accomplishing anything useful.

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  • Joe Sommer says:

    I would draw a distinction between China’s territorial ambitions and China’s imperial ambitions. Its territorial ambitions seem limited to Taiwan and control of the South China sea. Its imperial ambitions encompass the entire western Pacific basin and Southeast Asia. Most of the jurisdictions in this area strongly prefer an American to a Chinese imperium. (There is no third option.) What this means for US (or French) foreign policy I leave as an exercise to the reader.

  • Timothy Smyth says:

    I would make a couple of observations of what Macron may or may not achieved not necessarily in order of importance.

    First Canada seems to be drifting out of the Anglosphere and while it might not be correct to call it a Francosphere country(I would argue there is no such as thing as the Francosphere other than pure French dependencies in Francagrique) the current Liberal party govt in Ottawa seems to be quite content to stay away from these “new” Anglosphere initiatives. Some of this non Canadians might chalk up to the Quebec factor which is part of the story but another parts is many Canadians in metropolitan areas like Toronto and Vancouver of what is nominally English speaking Canada increasingly since 2003 but even earlier are coming around to foreign policy views more in line with France. From a Canadian political perspective this is called the MTV vote i.e. Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver with much of rural of Quebec outside of smaller urban centers like Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Gatineau NOT voting for the Trudeau Liberals but actually voting for the isolationist, nationalist, and separatist Bloc Quebecois while rural English Canada votes for the Anglo-nostalgic Conservative Party of Canada. So that is one story.

    The second story I think is what type of medium to long term damage does Macron attempt to impose on Joe Biden. Unlike say Kennedy and De Gaulle Macron is the more youthful energetic figure than the American president of the day. More importantly while Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison may have political interest in indulging in old Anglosphere nostalgia for Joe Biden to do so runs the danger of fitting into a narrative of Biden being old and out of touch among his own supporters in the US who are not Anglo-nostalgics. Any even short term historian will tell the percentage of Americans who trace there ancestry back to the British isles gets small er and smaller every year. 30 years ago lets say something like AUKUS might very well been supportable in an America that had the Anglo-descended percentage of the population that it did 30 years. Today however, that is a known unknown.

    The other issues I think are nuclear proliferation and both France’s and the US’ relations with Eastern Europe which I will follow up on in another comment.

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