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AUKUS: Can the Franco-American Relationship Be Repaired?

AUKUS: Can the Franco-American Relationship Be Repaired?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Are the French overreacting over the recent US-Australian submarine deal? Are observers justified in making a comparison with the 2003 Iraq crisis? 

The answer to both these questions is yes, at least to some extent. First of all we cannot not react to a set up that confirms the worst prejudices of the French about "Anglo-Saxon" duplicity. Secondly, and more significantly, this affair reveals deeper issues, as did the 2003 crisis.

With Iraq, the question was whether the United States would replace the UN Security Council as the supreme arbiter on the use of force. Today, in our view, the issue at stake is Washington's desire to balance powers in the Indo-Pacific, and therefore in China's environment. It wants to do so on its own terms, by prioritizing certain allies (or "vassals" as the French say), while deliberately excluding others. We focus on the United States because it is understandable that Australia, the most blameworthy in how it went about the endeavor, has pursued what it considers to be its vital interest. As for Britain, it is not surprising that it should seek to get out of the game by taking advantage of its special relationship with America.

We insist on the Indo-Pacific issue here because we must anticipate the consequences of the tripartite pact. Such was the breaking of the taboo on the dissemination of nuclear propulsion technologies. Will we see replicas of AUKUS with other countries, such as India, possibly on other types of weapons? Will the American military reengagement in the area, given its legitimate security ties there, take place at the expense of European interests, or even to their detriment? Let us note in passing that some people are pleased that European capitals remain indifferent to the slap in the face received by the French. Again, nothing new there, but let us wait for the Europeans to gradually discover all the implications of the AUKUS.

Biden is proving to be a more resolute successor to Obama, eager to take action, as we have seen in Afghanistan, in order to apply America’s top priority: countering China.

It goes without saying that the Iraq comparison has its limits. In 2003, we anticipated it. As early as January, French officials understood Washington's determination to invade. This time, no one in France seems to have perceived the signs of a fundamental realignment around the submarine deal. On the other hand, in the current context, it is not impossible that French officials are paying for having failed to adjust their strategic outlook after the US presidential elections. They saw in Biden a continuation of Trump, minus the tweets. In reality, Biden is proving to be a more resolute successor to Obama, eager to take action, as we have seen in Afghanistan, in order to apply America’s top priority: countering China.

During the transition period between both US administrations, Paris supported the EU-China investment agreement (end of December 2020), which Merkel wanted. Other signals have generated, whether rightly or wrongly, a sense of Franco-German ambiguity on how to respond to the China challenge. The after-effects have been felt since spring 2021, not without paradox. Biden has sought to spare Germany (inviting the Chancellor to Washington, compromising on the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline); he has chosen to call Boris Johnson's Great Britain back for a retake, given its conversion to a hard line with respect to Beijing; he has paid only superficial attention to the EU and France. The French have all the more reason to feel frustrated because they are less inclined than other Europeans to be complacent towards Beijing, and because their Indo-Pacific strategy was generally aimed at strengthening the defense capacity of states threatened by China.

A third reason for our discontent - if we refer to the 2003 precedent - is that only a frank clarification can restore confidence in Franco-American cooperation.

If the US strongly desires to organize a network of alliances to counter China, it acted truly irresponsibly by antagonizing a longtime partner and by cutting itself off from at least part of the Europeans. Moreover, it weakened NATO, which has been faced with the fait accompli of a deep shift in the strategy towards China, with significant risks of tensions, for example around Taiwan.

Only a frank clarification can restore confidence in Franco-American cooperation.

It is up to Washington to fix the damage. In the discussions that will begin between the French and the Americans, the latter would be well advised to explore two avenues. First, an effective implementation of a consultation mechanism between Europe and the United States, more robust than the one agreed upon during Biden's meeting with Brussels leaders in June, possibly backed by a transatlantic charter for the 21st century between the EU and America. Second, and perhaps most importantly, a deal that ensures strategic coordination in the Indo-Pacific, with at least a guarantee that the interests of European allies engaged in the area will not be undermined. This must apply first and foremost to France, which rightly claims the status of an Indo-Pacific power.

Would the French reject such advances? There are currently numerous talks in Paris about the idea of a "return to the Gaullist roots". Let us be Gaullian, of course, but let us also be fully aware of the strategic moment in which we happen to be in. General de Gaulle waited until the Cold War had entered a phase of relaxation (1966) to really distance himself from NATO and America. Today, however, we are in a period of intense polarization between China and the West. This is perhaps the main lesson of the painful episode of the Australian submarines.


The original text in French was published in Le Monde on September 21, 2021. 


Copyright: Ludovic MARIN / AFP

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