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The U.S.-French Diplomatic Crisis over the AUKUS Pact Is Not Catastrophic, But It Should Be a Warning for U.S. Policymakers

As the recalled French Ambassador noted, “every crisis is an opportunity.”

On September 15, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morison announced the creation of AUKUS―a historic security pact to counter growing Chinese aggression. The announcement was immediately followed by a strong condemnation by the French government, with French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian referring to the pact as a “stab in the back.” The alliance reflects America’s shifting geopolitical priorities and will likely push France towards a more independent defense policy that will rely less on the United States.

For the first time in history, France recalled its ambassador to the U.S. just one day after the announcement was made. Many experts are casting doubt on the future of U.S.-French and U.S.-European relations, and are questioning the impact of AUKUS on the transatlantic alliance. Despite the concerns and skepticism, however, it is clear that at this stage that AUKUS will not negatively impact the U.S-French nor U.S.-European relationship in a substantial way. The initial outcry and skepticism in the expert community was conditioned by the serious public confrontation between U.S. and French officials. However, subsequent developments have underscored that despite the damage done by AUKUS, the relationship with America’s oldest ally has a peculiar resiliency.

The skepticism about the future of the U.S.-French relations in lieu of the AUKUS deal is understandable. For France, the loss of the submarine deal was not only an economic loss, but an important blow to the country’s standing in the Indo-Pacific region where France has its own security interests. The $90 billion deal would provide Australia with conventional French submarines but the country decided to opt for nuclear-propelled submarines that will be built with American and British help within the framework of the trilateral security pact. Perhaps more importantly, the announcement of the pact strained critical trust between the three countries. This is because French leadership claims that they were not informed of the deal in advance, despite the Australian Prime Minister’s denial.

While AUKUS invites skepticism about the future of the U.S.-French and U.S.-European relations, the magnitude of the implications should not be exaggerated. Aside from the frustration stemming from the loss of a multibillion dollar deal, the French government’s reaction hinted at a feeling of disappointment and a sense of betrayal by closely allied countries. Macron’s statements reflect this sense of disappointment for not being informed about AUKUS negotiations in advance. At the same time, President Biden’s statement during the meeting with Macron that the U.S. was “clumsy” in handling the announcement of the deal suggests that France was intentionally kept in the dark as Australian officials approached the Biden administration earlier this year with their request.

The French response is also understandable given the geopolitical implications of the loss. France has legitimate security interests in the region where it has several overseas territories and economic interests. The submarine deal was expected to elevate the French-Australian relationship to a new level, and was part of President Macron’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific region where he aimed to consolidate France’s role as an important player in the region. But the choice of the Australian government to cooperate with the U.S. and the U.K.―which left the European Union after the 2016 referendum―to build nuclear-powered submarines is also a blow to the standing of EU as a geopolitical power in the Indo-Pacific region given France’s role as a founding member of EU and a political, economic, and military powerhouse on the continent.

Economic, security, and geopolitical interests are not the only factors that explain the choice of the French government to escalate the crisis in an unprecedented manner. Macron, who is comparatively inexperienced in foreign policy and politics in general, has sought to realign French foreign policy with the goal of elevating France’s status on the international stage and as a leader within the EU bloc. In light of these efforts, the debacle surrounding AUKUS is bound to have domestic costs for the French president. Anti-Americanism is a tradition with a long history in French politics, which means that escalating the crisis can also be seen as a way of diminishing the harm done to Macron’s political platform and a way to satisfy the French public’s dissatisfaction with AUKUS.

But the history of the American-French strategic relationship suggests that the current crisis, despite its magnitude, will not significantly alter the relationship. From disagreements over decision-making in NATO to the 2003 Iraq War, the relationship between the U.S. and France has not been quintessential, but the two countries have always found a way to escape the potential of a break-up. Unlike in other cases, this relationship rests not only on security or other interests alone, but on a fundamental basis of shared values, norms, and common history as liberal democracies and centuries-old allies. The relationship between the U.S. and France is institutionalized through membership in several key international organizations and frameworks, such as NATO, the G7 group, and the UN Security Council. The U.S. and France also have largely similar security and defense interests in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. Specifically, both countries have a strategic interest in halting regional terrorism and nuclear proliferation, as well as a desire to stabilize Syria and further promote European political and economic integration. Lastly, France and the U.S. have very strong economic, trade, and investment ties: France is America’s third largest trade partner in Europe, after Germany and the U.K. Such an extensive partnership alongside U.S.-French military ties guarantee that AUKUS, in its current form, has limited capacity to significantly alter America’s relationship with France.

Recent events following the escalation of the crisis further prove that AUKUS will not be as significant of a blow to the relationship as some fear. Indeed, President Biden called the French president on September 22, 2021 in order to have an open dialogue about the disagreements between the two countries. This was followed by a visit from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who, in a recent meeting between the two heads of state on October 29, 2021, showed signs that the two allies are taking steps to settle the dispute. It is clear, based on the diplomatic progress on both sides, that the two countries are committed to resolving the confrontation as soon as possible. As the recalled French Ambassador noted, “every crisis is an opportunity.” The French government appears to be keen on using the crisis to score foreign policy gains in other areas: after the phone call between President Biden and President Macron, the French Embassy in the U.S. announced that, among other things, the first concrete steps towards rapprochement will be the American pledge to strengthen its support for the French anti-terrorist campaign in the Sahel.

While the U.S. and France are on the path to repairing their relationship after this bump in the road, France is likely to revamp an old French tradition of foreign policy: a more autonomous Europe that is less reliant on America’s military might for European defense. While France needs American support in areas such as counterterrorism, this would not be the first time the French government advocates for a decrease of American influence over Europe’s affairs and European decision-making.

The concern with Europe’s dependence on American military and economic power dates back to the construction of the European order following WWII. Since then, the French government has tried to balance against U.S. supremacy in world affairs and reclaim its status as a great European power. Among such policies was the decision of the French President Charles de Gaulle to remove French forces from NATO’s integrated command in 1966. De Gaulle’s concern with preventing American hegemony on the European continent, even at the height of the Cold War, reflects a long-standing tradition of French foreign policy. The French government also tried to decrease America’s influence in Europe following the Cold War by advocating for the creation of a new European defense architecture instead of expanding the existing U.S.-led NATO alliance. Among the proposals of an independent European security framework was the development of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). However, CSCE never achieved the degree of organizational capacity as NATO to replace the existing security order in Europe. With NATO’s enlargement into Eastern Europe, France essentially lost the opportunity to decrease the American role and oversight over European security affairs.

It is likely that Macron will attempt to use France’s leverage in international platforms, such as the EU, to advocate for a more sovereign European defense policy France will likely prompt calls for “strategic autonomy,” as proposals for a European army are resurfacing. But AUKUS is neither the immediate reason nor the root cause of these conversations. AUKUS reflects America’s changing geopolitical focus towards the Indo-Pacific region and countering the threats stemming from China’s more assertive foreign policy. The U.S.-U.K.-Australia defense pact, is not in itself the main source of strained relations with Europe. In fact, it was America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan that prompted recent conversations about strategic European autonomy in the first place.

The U.S. and France, in the last two months, have gone through a serious diplomatic confrontation. Aside from the economic aspects of the deal that France lost, the issue of damaged trust was more harmful, given France’s exclusion from the negotiations. It is important that policymakers in Washington learn from this in order to keep the U.S.-French relationship intact.

The first step is to recognize France’s strategic importance to the U.S. and repair the damage done to the sense of solidarity and trust between the two governments. Policymakers should also be careful to not respond aggressively to the possible French calls for European autonomy. While these calls will obviously cause anxiety in American foreign policy circles, such initiatives have failed before and are likely to fail again given the necessity for a common transatlantic front against the increasingly hostile international environment and emerging threats such as climate change, terrorism, more assertive Russian and Chinese policies and actions, and democratic backsliding in the world. In this context, the limited security pact signed by the U.S., U.K., and Australia is not going to change the fundamental nature of America’s relationship with France, or Europe in general. At the same time, this strategic alliance should not be taken for granted by U.S. policymakers. The accumulation of damaging events without recovery can distance even the closest of allies.

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By Martin Makaryan

Martin Makaryan is an undergraduate at UCLA majoring in Political Science and minoring in Global Studies, class of 2022. Having previously interned with the California State Assembly and the Armenian National Committee of America, he is interested in foreign policy and aspires to join the U.S. foreign service after pursuing a graduate degree in international affairs. In fall 2021, he will begin an internship with LA Mayor's Office for International Affairs.

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