High Diplomatic Dudgeon
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.