Submarines are devices of deceit. They’re meant to conceal their true positions, and they carefully target torpedoes at the enemy. But sometimes, as this week’s Global Dispatch argues, they can reveal tensions that are otherwise hidden — especially when they engage in friendly fire.
Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editor
A sense of victimhood. A short view on history. Dramatic, over-the-top responses and threats of retribution. For four years, many used these terms to describe President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. Now, they’re being associated with a man who tried to position himself as the anti-Trump — a mostly liberal, suave globalist: French President Emmanuel Macron.
Last week, Australia scrapped a 2016 deal with France to purchase a fleet of submarines. The French vessels are normally nuclear-powered, but because of Australia’s opposition to atomic energy, Paris committed to turning them into diesel-driven machines. But Canberra has now decided to dump that plan altogether and has instead signed a new trilateral alliance with the U.S and U.K. that will see the Americans and Brits sell nuclear submarines to Australia.
It’s understandable for France to feel aggrieved, even though cost overruns and delays in its delivery of submarines to Australia had already injected behind-the-scenes tension into negotiations. Indeed, if France learned of Australia’s about-turn on their deal first in the media, as some officials have suggested, that’s terrible diplomacy on the part of Canberra, Washington and London.
But France’s move to call back its ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia is a stunning overreaction. Paris made U.S. President Joe Biden wait for a chance to speak with Macron like someone unwilling to talk to their partner after an act of perceived betrayal. They eventually spoke on Wednesday. France has agreed to send back its envoy to Washington. And Biden and Macron are expected to meet in October. Yet the spat is hardly over — France has not confirmed if it will participate in a meeting of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council in Pittsburgh next week, and Macron hasn’t spoken with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison about their diplomatic discord.
Paris should know better than to behave this way. French defense manufacturers regularly compete against rivals from the U.S., U.K., Italy, Russia and others in cutthroat ways to win multibillion contracts. In recent years, India picked French Rafale fighter jets over the Eurofighter, built by a British-led consortium, and Russian Sukhoi warplanes — despite then-British Prime Minister David Cameron visiting New Delhi to try and influence opinion. Just this year, Greece and Croatia decided to go with the Rafale over the Eurofighter. In mega defense deals, you win some and you lose some.
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So what’s really behind Macron’s reaction? In the short term, his response is likely shaped by a bid to secure his second term in France’s presidential election next April. No French president has won his reelection campaign since Jacques Chirac in 2002. Opposition parties are already criticizing Macron for losing the Australia deal. Will pitching himself as a warrior for French pride against untrustworthy allies help him electorally? We’ll see.
But the episode has also exposed deeper, more long-term divisions between America and its European allies. On Monday, European Union boss Ursula von der Leyen demanded an explanation from Australia before the two sides can continue vital trade talks. Other officials in the European Parliament have sought an apology from Canberra.
Biden’s unilateral timeline for the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August also upset America’s European allies, who had pressed the U.S. president for more time to remove their citizens and Afghan allies in a less chaotic manner. While the EU and its biggest powers, Germany and France, worry about Russia’s assertive military and espionage tactics — including efforts to influence this Sunday's German election — Berlin and Paris also want to directly engage with Moscow instead of allowing Washington to dictate to them.
Macron and outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel have repeatedly stressed the need for Europe to become strategically more autonomous. Olaf Scholz of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, who is leading polls and is widely expected to be the next chancellor, has made clear that he sees relations with Paris as the cornerstone of Germany’s foreign policy.
To be sure, the my-way-or-the-highway approach of Trump — and Biden’s reluctance to completely break from it — have injected tensions into the trans-Atlantic relationship. While Biden frequently speaks of respecting traditional friends and allies, his administration’s treatment of France in the spat over nuclear submarines points to a reality that’s far more complex.
France has described the deal between the U.S., U.K. and Australia as a “betrayal.” The country’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has called it a “stab in the back.” But in reality, that trust between America and France — and Europe, to a large extent — had already broken down before news of the submarine pact emerged.
Consider the facts: France has a bigger presence in the Indian Ocean than any other European nation, with bases in Djibouti and in its overseas territories of Mayotte, Réunion and the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. Paris shares Washington’s concerns regarding China’s expansionism in the region. Would it not have made sense for the U.S. to include France as a central partner in a new Indo-Pacific alliance aimed at containing China?
That it didn’t is revealing, as is Macron’s bombastic response. Expect these differences between the U.S. and mainland Europe to play out in myriad forms over the next few years, with disputes about everything from technology platforms to vaccine strategies. None of this is likely to torpedo NATO or other elements of America’s broader system of alliances and treaties. But it will strain vital relationships — and bring relief to Russia and China, which now know that the West is far from united.
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