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AUKUS: A Cautionary Tale for French-American Relations

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Le Rubicon, a new French-language publication on international and military affairs. 

“There was lying, there was duplicity, there was a major breach of trust.” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian did not mince words a day after the announcement of AUKUS, a new Australia-United Kingdom-United States security partnership, on Sept. 15, 2021. The new pact scrapped the submarine deal concluded between France and Australia in 2016, which had become the cornerstone of French strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Within a few days, the entire French administration — from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Ministry of the Armed Forces — was fulminating. Paris recalled its ambassadors to Canberra and Washington, a first in bilateral French-American history. Suddenly, relations between France and the United States faced a major crisis.

Three months later, reconciliation looks like a done deal. To contain French discontent, the American administration tacitly acknowledged its mistakes in managing the AUKUS negotiations and agreed to a process of “in-depth consultations” held at high level in September and October. On Oct. 29, a meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron on the margins of the Group of Twenty conference offered the opportunity for a joint statement reaffirming the value of the French-American partnership and launching several bilateral and European initiatives. Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Paris mid-November completed the show of repentance from American officials.

No one doubts that Australia’s decision to shift gears on its submarine technology will have profound ramifications for the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. The choice calls into question France’s strategy in the region, although, paradoxically, it may have contributed to reinforcing French willingness to play a regional role, as well as that role’s legitimacy.On the bilateral level between France and the United States, the crisis arising from AUKUS had at least two merits. It tested France’s influence in Washington at the end of a decade of strengthened cooperation. But it also highlighted the fragility of a bilateral relationship in a rapidly changing environment.

2021: Controlled Escalation 

“The state of relations between France and the United States has not been a stable quantity, but has instead oscillated over time, with a series of rifts and reconciliations,” wrote French historian Georges-Henri Soutou in 2004. Oscillations haven’t precluded the two countries from keeping their alliance strong: Since the Suez crisis, American and French interests have clashed periodically without permanently derailing the relationship.

Certainly, a few disputes reached worrying heights. The vehement French reaction to AUKUS brought back memories of the last major French-American clash over the Iraq war nearly two decades ago. In 2003, French opposition hindered American ambitions to reshape the Middle East. In 2021, France’s uproar complicated American efforts to put together an allied front to take on the challenge of responding to China’s aggressive behavior.

Yet the crises’ trajectories have been quite different. In 2003, tensions rose gradually, until the confrontation escalated after Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s speech to the U.N. Security Council. The feud overflowed diplomatic circles and became a society-to-society dispute between Americans traumatized by 9/11 and French people worried about the Bush administration’s military adventurism, giving voice to other opponents in Europe and beyond.

In 2021, the clash was sudden, bilateral, and concerned technical matters, unlikely to arouse popular passions. Still, it could easily have strayed off course. In France, in a charged political context, the putative candidates for the 2022 presidential elections were encouraging escalation. All pushed for France to take a hard line, with the most sovereigntist among them threatening to leave NATO’s integrated command if they came to power.

In the United States, on the other hand, there was little such reaction. Far from turning into an echo chamber of French-bashing as in 2003, the American press, fed by Washington think-tank experts, relayed French grievances. Strategists applauded AUKUS, but mitigated their enthusiasm with criticism of poor management of the French ally: a blunder Biden was expected to repair. In a nutshell, France spoiled the party — and yet, no one blamed them.

A Favorable Context

An explanation for why the crisis was so well-managed lies in the influence France has gained in Washington since 2003 — based on the realization of how costly the Iraq war crisis had been for the country’s image in the United States. France realized that it lacked influence in the United States compared to Germany (with its foundations), Turkey (with its business associations), or other allies from the anglosphere. In the years following the crisis, France encouraged the creation of a French Caucus in Congress, offered educational study trips to France for experts and congressional staffers, and supported expertise on France in Washington think tanks. It has a growing D.C. presence noticed by other European nations.

The AUKUS crisis also comes at the end of more than a decade of enhanced French-American cooperation, whereby France has gradually taken up the mantle of key ally of the United States. France’s return to NATO’s integrated military command in 2009 eased suspicions about French intentions toward the Atlantic Alliance and increased its influence within the organization. During the Obama administration, France and the United States successfully worked together on major diplomatic issues, such as Iran and climate change. America’s restrained interventionism paired well with the French desire to take responsibility in Libya and the Sahel. In the Middle East, although they failed to agree on Syria, the two countries shared counter-terrorism priorities in the face of the emergence of the Islamic State, thanks to and “alignment of interest” and an “alignment of will,” a recipe described by Derek Chollet in 2018. Consolidated by an agreement between the French defense minister and the U.S. secretary of defense a year after the Bataclan attack, bilateral military relations between the two countries deepened in all areas — naval, air, cyber, and space — reaching “historic levels,” as Olivier-Rémy Bel and Jeffrey Lightfoot wrote in 2020.

Among Europeans, France became prime partners of the United States, while Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany seemed static and Brexit-era Britain experienced an eclipse. As it pushed for European strategic autonomy, France encouraged its partners to increase their defense spending and approach the China issue strategically. During the chaotic years of the Trump administration, French pragmatism insulated bilateral relations, and even won Macron the privilege of a state visit. Despite failing to influence an administration hostile to multilateralism and the European Union, France was largely spared President Donald Trump’s punches.

A Warning Nonetheless

At the close of a decade of excellent French-American relations, one would be tempted to believe Biden’s plea of clumsiness to excuse the AUKUS affront. As everyone knows, the administration’s foreign policy team, with nominations blocked in Congress, is incomplete. Furthermore, it’s not like the announcement pushed France out of the Indo-Pacific. As a “balancing power” with 1.6 million citizens in the region, France can count on other partnerships, such as the one with India, to offer strategic options on which to rebound. The AUKUS agreement itself is not yet negotiated. Its contours can still be amended to accommodate allies. Kurt Campbell, White House coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, promises the agreement will have an “open” architecture, leaving the door ajar for future partnerships with other countries.

All of this is true. Yet it should not obscure the fact that the AUKUS crisis is a wake-up call for French-American relations. Indeed, it reveals structural vulnerabilities in the bilateral relationship that are exacerbated by a deteriorating strategic environment. The partnership is being torn by centrifugal forces, which must be addressed to avoid further surprises.

At its core, a sustainable relationship is built on shared interests. The China challenge is America’s priority and frames its strategic choices. As AUKUS illustrates, the United States intends to rely on its network of allies to tackle China’s assertive use of its growing power. However, when France puts forward its own distinct strategy in the Indo-Pacific, or when it questions the role of NATO in dealing with China, it partly contradicts U.S. plans. The two countries’ diagnoses of China converge, but given their slight differences, their strategic approaches will remain a source of disagreement.

As successive U.S. administrations de-prioritize the Middle East in favor of great-power competition and Sino-American rivalry, America’s relationship with France — for whom the fight against jihadi terrorism remains the number one priority — loses its centrality. In its global posture review completed in November, the Pentagon explicitly reaffirms that the Indo-Pacific is the priority theater, while American commitments in the Middle East will be submitted to future reviews. If the American posture in the region were to be reduced, it could call into question mutual interests in northeast Syria. While the United States has committed to contributing to counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel — when they could redirect resources freed up by the withdrawal from Afghanistan — this is primarily meant to support French and European initiatives, since the United States has no vital interest in the region.

Beyond military interventions, France and the United States have few shared diplomatic priorities. French crisis management efforts in Libya, Lebanon, and even Turkey have not led to joint initiatives with the United States. Conversely, France is struggling to insert itself into the administration’s other international priorities. Foreign policy for the middle class has not yet found a specific bilateral translation, and France is not very enthusiastic about the Summit for Democracy, preferring instead to promote an “effective multilateralism.”

For Americans, on several key issues, the European Union appears to play an even more decisive role than member states in the international arena, an idea that has gained traction among progressives. Its normative and internal market power makes the European Union an attractive ally for the United States, which increasingly relies on E.U.-U.S. dialogues — including on China — or the Trade and Technology Council to address global geo-economic issues. France, which has long wanted to move trans-atlantic collaboration away from NATO alone, is pleased with the Biden administration’s interest in European institutions. But Paris is also nervous to see the Brussels-Washington link strengthen, as it worries about being excluded from trans-Atlantic discussions.

Other European partners are also reclaiming their place in the ranks of America’s alliances. In Germany, a social democratic, liberal, and green government is coming to power. While disagreements will no doubt emerge, the Democrats’ appetite to work with Germany may be strengthened by the coalition government’s ambitious commitment to climate action, or even to dealing with China. More concerning is the transformation of the French-U.K. relationship into a zero-sum game. Britain, long mired in post-Iraq anti-interventionism and Brexit negotiations, is making a notable comeback on the international stage. But far from their past role as a bridge between Europe and the United States, the United Kingdom no longer actively participates in bringing the two sides of the Atlantic together, as AUKUS has demonstrated. The United States could become impatient with the tensions between its two partners, and could, as a result, take decisions that run contrary to French interests.

Beyond competition among Europeans, it is the broader strategic environment that is deteriorating and leaving France, as Michel Duclos writes, exposed to the risk of “strategic solitude.” According to Duclos, France is suffering not only from the weakening of its model at a time when neo-authoritarians are gaining power, but also from choices that isolate it, such as the one to resume a dialogue with Russia without the support of its European allies.

Finally, in French domestic politics, the specter of “Americanization,” particularly as far as cultural issues are concerned, is brandished as a repellent. Meanwhile, the November 2020 election brought to power a new generation of progressives in the United States. Despite the political difficulties faced by the Biden coalition, the White House will continue to seek ideological allies within major democracies. France, which is experiencing a conservative and inward-looking moment, appears to be out of step, and does not benefit from the American ideological momentum.

Recovering Convergence

The AUKUS slap in the face woke France from its torpor. Thanks to the rapid reaction of the diplomatic machine, France managed to make the most of a bad situation. It succeeded in forcing a trans-Atlantic dialogue that had not taken place in the aftermath of the European Union’s offer to Biden following his European tour in June 2021, or even after the shameful exit from Afghanistan. Post-AUKUS dialogue has helped to clarify American expectations on European defense, to create conditions for real trans-Atlantic consultations, and to force Americans to reflect on what they expect not only from Europe, but also from France, a “best ally” of ten years that America just betrayed.

Since France and the United States were able to bounce back after AUKUS, it is necessary to nurture this rapprochement before centrifugal trends take over again. For France, this means at least three things. First, France will, more than ever, have to secure the support of Europeans (bilaterally, in coalitions, or E.U.-wide) for autonomy — as exemplified by the defense agreement with Greece or the Quirinal Treaty with Italy. Secondly, France should continue to be a force for diplomatic proposals on major global issues or crises, constructing this diplomacy with Europeans as well as Americans, as was done over many years on the Iranian nuclear agreement. Finally, in order to guarantee stable relations with the United States, France will necessarily have to return to a viable and beneficial trajectory with the United Kingdom. Only if these three conditions are met will France and the United States once again find, together, an alignment of their interests and wills — which could start with a joint initiative on European security, particularly with regards to Russia. Without this renewed convergence, being steam-rolled by American strategic choices in the future will be the result not of clumsiness, but of habit.

Célia Belin, Ph.D., is visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Her research focuses on trans-Atlantic relations, American and French foreign policy, and domestic determinants of foreign policy. Prior to Brookings, Belin served as advisor on U.S. affairs and trans-Atlantic relations in the French foreign ministry’s Centre d’analyse, de prévision et de stratégie (policy planning staff). She holds a Ph.D. in political science/international relations from the University Panthéon-Assas. The views expressed here are solely her own. You can find her on Twitter @celiabelin.

Image: White House (Photo by Adam Schultz)

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