New Lows in Old Alliances
The surprise announcement on Wednesday, September 15, of a new naval defense partnership between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom blindsided French President Emmanuel Macron. In 2016, Australia had signed an agreement with French defense company DCNS (now Naval Group), which was complemented by a 2019 Franco-Australian strategic partnership agreement. Not only was France, the world’s third most powerful navy, hoping that the deal would cement its strategic role in the Indo-Pacific, it also was depending on it for economic investment and jobs in particular. The deal was projected to generate close to $100 billion for the French economy over the next half-century.
In a virtually unprecedented move, Macron recalled France’s ambassadors to both the United States and Australia on Friday, classifying Australia’s move as “unacceptable between allies and partners.” French Defense Minister Yves le Drian did not mince words, calling the surreptitious negotiation by the three Anglophone allies “a stab in the back,” rhetoric that was echoed by many others in French media. What was most distressing to the French was the suddenness of the move and the deception in the lead-up to the surprise announcement. According to French sources, in communication with the Australins and Americans over the last several months there had been no hint that a rival naval deal was in the works. For French diplomat Pierre Morcos, the central issue was this breach of trust. French officials lost no time in pointing out that Biden’s actions differed little from Trump’s “America First” policies. A multilateral America respectful of its allies is most decidedly not “back,” they glowered.
The United States for its part struck an emollient tone. The White House’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki insisted that France is and would remain an important ally and that they were notified beforehand of the agreement. Not all allies are involved in all strategic decisions, she insisted. This was disingenuous to say the least. For a deal of this nature, a few hours did not provide a sufficiently respectful advance warning. The loss of tens of billions of dollars to the French arms industry is also not insignificant. On the other hand, defense analysts have noted that the controversies over the details of the original Franco-Australian deal were not minor disagreements, as the French insist. Disagreements about who would do the work and where are important given the massive amount of technical know-how required to make submarines. In addition, the lack of an existing prototype for the non-nuclear submarine scarcely lent confidence that the end result would be a success. It almost certainly would not have come in under budget.
Former French ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud noted another, more significant disagreement behind this conflict: the differing strategic visions between the United States and France when it comes to China: “Seen from Europe, China is a rival, a competitor but not an enemy.” France, like other European countries, is not entirely convinced that China is the next Soviet Union or that a second Cold War is upon us. Like almost every French President since De Gaulle, Macron wishes for France (and Europe more broadly) to stake out a foreign policy that does not align perfectly with that of the United States. A difference this time around: China is much more integrated in the global economy (including with France) than the Soviet Union ever was.
It is true that Biden, and the Congressional Democrats in general, have largely embraced Trump’s shift to counter China. Gone are the days when Americans proclaimed that economic liberalization would inevitably lead to democratic liberalization in China. Araud is not wrong. In the withdrawal from Afghanistan last month, Biden was unambiguous in his insistence that the fight with al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism was the past struggle and that the new one was to contain the rise of China. It’s one of the few things these days that unites Americans.
On the French side, domestic considerations also play an important role in the present conflict. Emmanuel Macron is up for re-election next spring as his five-year term comes to an end. After a significant decline over his first three years in power, Macron’s approval rating has bounced back towards 40% because of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. This weekend marks the 10th straight week of protests against his vaccination mandate. Macron’s strongest suit right now is the lack of a convincing challenger. Macrons knows it is imperative for him to appear strong and decisive as elections approach. His recall of the American and Australian ambassadors is clearly an attempt to save some face from the situation.
As is so often the case, the French and Americans reached for the same trope about their relationship, even as they used it for very different ends. For the French, American conduct was unbefitting the “oldest of allies.” For the Americans, this minor disagreement would not deter such a solid relationship that had endured for so long. This recurrence to history—French aid in the American Revolutionary War and the American effort to defeat the Germans in both world wars—is useful, but it also obfuscates a great deal. In the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, relations between the governments of Bush and Chirac “sunk to new lows” (another popular, yet misleading, phrase). However, the insults about “Old Europe” and the renaming of French fries soon became amusing anecdotes once Nicolas Sarkozy was elected. “Sarko l’américain,” as he was called, reversed Charles de Gaulle 1966 decision to pull France out of NATO’s command structure, and soon it was the French who were pushing the Americans to intervene in Libya.
Yesterday’s recall of ambassadors was not entirely unprecedented either, despite what many proclaimed. In 1942, the United States recalled Ambassador William D. Leahy from Vichy France. After the 1940 partition of France following the Nazi victory in the “phony war,” the United States had recognized Vichy and sought to use its diplomatic presence to dissuade the supposedly neutral Vichy state from aiding the Nazis. The extremely tenuous situation, based on assumptions about Vichy’s legitimacy, their claim of neutrality, and the feasibility of diplomacy, ultimately foundered in 1942, becoming untenable when the unambiguously pro-Axis Pierre Laval became Vichy’s chief of government. Ambassador Leahy was recalled and no replacement was sent.
Both the United States and France have chosen to ignore this actual low point in Franco-American relationship. Following De Gaulle, the French have found it more convenient to believe that Vichy never represented the “true France.” Americans, for their part, have found it counterproductive to bring up uncomfortable truths about their ally’s Vichy years. De Gaulle’s myth has served as a convenient fiction for everyone.
During World War II, the stakes were much higher than they are today. If it became convenient to forget what happened between 1940 and 1945, then the deception and loss of contracts this time around will also inevitably fade into oblivion. Sooner or later, the French ambassador will be restored to DC, and someone will be proclaiming the undying bonds of the Franco-American relationship.
My bet is on sooner.