France and the US need to restore trust

Newsletter: Europe Express

Furious claims of betrayal, withdrawal of ambassadors and threats of retaliation on trade and technical co-operation. Not since 2003 has there been such a bitter diplomatic dispute between western allies as France’s indignant response to the new security partnership, named Aukus, between Australia, the US and the UK. The rift between Paris and Washington has not seemed as wide since France and Germany opposed the US-led war in Iraq, and then it was the US that felt let down by its allies.

Thankfully, with his phone call to President Joe Biden on Wednesday, Emmanuel Macron chose to de-escalate the dispute in return for US support for a French and EU role in the Indo-Pacific and its endorsement of a stronger EU defence policy. But it is going to take more than one conversation to restore trust. Relations with Australia and Britain may be even harder to repair in the short term.

Paris is understandably outraged that its own security partnership with Australia was blown out of the water by a nuclear submarine deal negotiated with Canberra behind its back by its two closest security partners.

This is about much more than lost prestige or a lost defence contract. France wants some influence in the Indo-Pacific, not just because it has territories there but because that is where the course of the 21st century will be decided. Britain, Germany and the Netherlands think the same way. France’s now defunct submarine agreement with Australia was a way of adding military heft to its Indo-Pacific strategy. But the sinking of the sub deal shows just how hard it is for France and other western powers to carve out a third way in US-China rivalry.

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Washington may feel that French anger is a price worth paying for a new, robust Asia-Pacific security partnership to rattle China. But the lack of consultation with Paris was a mistake, as Biden conceded to Macron in their phone call. The perception of perfidious Anglo-Saxons plays into the hands of French nationalists who want warmer ties with Russia and China. Some French rightwingers are clamouring for France to withdraw from Nato’s integrated command, as it did under Charles De Gaulle. Snubbing France, as well as blindsiding Europeans on other issues such as tax or vaccine patents, does nothing to foster the transatlantic collaboration Biden wants on Chinese systemic rivalry and economic coercion.

France, meanwhile, needs US support if it is to persuade Europeans to take more responsibility for their own security. If it tries to further the cause as a way of countering Washington, it will alienate Germany, Poland and other partners. France underestimates the suspicions of its motives in other EU capitals. No US administration has been as supportive, at least rhetorically, as this one of a more robust EU defence role. Shared security interests, for example in the Sahel, are too important to be sacrificed in this dispute.

The same is true of the UK. But it says a lot about the petulant nature of Anglo-French relations that on the day Biden and Macron were trying to patch things up, Boris Johnson was telling the French president to “get a grip” over the submarine row. The short-term political interests of the French and British leaders work against detente. Johnson wants dividends from Brexit, Macron wants to show its costs. They need to work with each other, though, to fulfil their ambitions. Johnson’s aspirations for Global Britain are meaningless without full UK engagement in European security — as are Macron’s hopes for a stronger Europe without some role for the UK.

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