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Sub Snub Has Paris in a Tizzy Over AUKUS

The French are right to be upset—but only about the money, not the strategy.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Macron at nuclear submarine launch ceremony in France
French President Emmanuel Macron meets with a submarine crew at the official launch ceremony of a new French nuclear submarine in Cherbourg, France, on July 12, 2019. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

The Sept. 15 announcement of a new partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, awkwardly called AUKUS, is a significant move by the three countries to improve their strategic alignment and military cooperation as the Indo-Pacific increasingly becomes a focal point of foreign and defense policy.

Though the partnership initially includes several workstreams on a range of defense and technology cooperation areas, most of the attention has focused on the new fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines Australia plans to build, which will involve the United States sharing its nuclear submarine propulsion technology for only the second time in history. (Washington had previously shared the highly classified technology only with Britain.) That, in turn, has led to much consternation and anger in France—because as AUKUS was announced, Australia terminated an earlier deal with Naval Group, a state-controlled French company, to build a dozen diesel-powered submarines.

As a result, Franco-U.S. and Franco-Australian relations are … underwater. French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who laid out his own vision for the Indo-Pacific in a July visit to Washington, called the announcement a “stab in the back” and ordered a recall of the French ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. Other public and private French reactions have been equally colorful. At the last minute, the French canceled a gala at their Washington embassy meant to commemorate the Franco-U.S. partnership since the American Revolutionary War.

The Sept. 15 announcement of a new partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, awkwardly called AUKUS, is a significant move by the three countries to improve their strategic alignment and military cooperation as the Indo-Pacific increasingly becomes a focal point of foreign and defense policy.

Though the partnership initially includes several workstreams on a range of defense and technology cooperation areas, most of the attention has focused on the new fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines Australia plans to build, which will involve the United States sharing its nuclear submarine propulsion technology for only the second time in history. (Washington had previously shared the highly classified technology only with Britain.) That, in turn, has led to much consternation and anger in France—because as AUKUS was announced, Australia terminated an earlier deal with Naval Group, a state-controlled French company, to build a dozen diesel-powered submarines.

As a result, Franco-U.S. and Franco-Australian relations are … underwater. French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who laid out his own vision for the Indo-Pacific in a July visit to Washington, called the announcement a “stab in the back” and ordered a recall of the French ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. Other public and private French reactions have been equally colorful. At the last minute, the French canceled a gala at their Washington embassy meant to commemorate the Franco-U.S. partnership since the American Revolutionary War.

In their responses, French officials and some commentators have cast the announcement as an indication of a major strategic shift, particularly on the part of Washington. The move, they assert, represents a kind of geopolitical infidelity by the United States that demonstrates it does not take France (and by extension, they hasten to add, Europe as a whole) seriously as a partner. They have labeled the move as Trumpian and argue it shows that U.S. President Joe Biden’s June trip to Europe, in which he sought to reassure allies that “America is back,” was a tour of empty promises that belied a trend, begun during the Obama administration, of the United States de-prioritizing Europe and its interests.

The United States needs France, and both Biden and the Europeans know it.

Some are renewing calls to double-down on French President Emmanuel Macron’s oft-repeated notion of “strategic autonomy”—the idea that Europe needs to develop the capacity to act independently in global affairs—as if doing so is a kind of retaliation against the United States. That’s an unfortunate concession to a moment of pique, because painting the concept of greater European capabilities as a way of punishing the United States undermines the case French diplomats have made over the last few years that strategic autonomy should most definitely not be seen as entailing a transatlantic divorce.

But it’s money that lies at the root of many a family conflagration, and so it is with this one. The French are understandably upset about the loss of an enormous arms deal worth over $65 billion, and that this is happening as Macron’s reelection effort begins to build makes the loss sting even more. Without the submarine deal, there might have been some grumbling about the Americans not including everyone in the new pact, but no one would have been en colère in Paris. For the French—or anyone else—to spin a substantial commercial loss into a paradigm-busting strategic reorientation is a misinterpretation of the meaning of the pact, the main strategic focus of which is, after all, the Indo-Pacific.

France’s disappointment is understandable, as is its desire to express that disappointment forcefully to allies. Family is exasperating—and sometimes confidence in the longevity of our relationships with those to whom we feel closest gives us more space to express outrage in the moment. But the French (and other Europeans) should take Biden at his word when he expresses, as he did repeatedly on his visit to Europe in June, that he wants to deepen the transatlantic relationship. In the context of Biden’s broader views about the current moment and the contest between democracy and authoritarianism, his commitment to the transatlantic relationship is not only a choice made based on shared history and values. To Biden, it’s a necessity given the challenges the United States faces and the end of a unipolar moment in world politics. The United States needs France, and both Biden and the Europeans know it.

And the AUKUS partnership was not the fruit of some dastardly plan by the United States to exclude France (or Germany or Japan) from a new club and simultaneously undermine French commercial interests. Whether or not French officials admit it—and for the moment, they can’t—they know this.

AUKUS arose out of the coincidence of a post-Brexit Britain seeking new architectures for global engagement and Chinese behavior leaving the Australians focused on shoring up their defense capabilities in the region. While the new pact also aligns with U.S. priorities, takes a significant step on defense cooperation, and represents an achievement for the Biden administration, the initial demand signal for the initiative did not come primarily from Washington. And the fact that the partnership, for now, includes three countries with significant interests in the region and a pre-existing, robust intelligence sharing arrangement should not be surprising. French officials also know that the Franco-Australian submarine deal had begun to run aground some time ago as cost overruns and delays raised political opposition in Australia and consternation among the Australian leadership. (As one would expect, the official French line disputes this and points out that there are bound to be some hiccups in a project of this size.)

At the same time, the United States, Britain, and Australia should not be dismissive of French ire. When a partner is upset, you take it seriously. While there were obvious reasons for wanting to keep the AUKUS project confidential during its development, complaints about inadequate consultation before the announcement are coming on the heels of similar grumbling with respect to Afghanistan. Whether it’s a perception problem or a real process problem, the United States should take action to increase engagement with Europeans at all levels, including the highest one.

In part because so much attention has focused on the submarine deal, there has been less attention paid to the technology and cybersecurity elements of the partnership. Here the AUKUS framework provides a basis for cooperation on research and development that could be a pilot for broader cooperation in the Group of Seven (G-7). The French could engage the United States and Britain to work toward such a step.

Going forward, both Washington and Paris need to take steps to reinforce the Franco-American partnership. While the Indo-Pacific will continue to be a focus for both—and the United States will continue seek ways to work with the French in the region—in the coming months, the Biden administration should also look for opportunities to engage constructively and supportively on other French strategic priorities, including in the Sahel. This is a moment to look for opportunities to build trust—through actions more than words—with a close ally that has significant military capabilities and overlapping strategic interests. Paris, in turn, will undoubtedly continue to express its displeasure, yet it should be circumspect about doing so in ways that are damaging to the relationship in the long run. France’s strategic interests are not well-served by the resentful cultivation of a false narrative that AUKUS represents a zero-sum choice by the United States to turn away from Continental Europe.

The strategic goals served by AUKUS align with those behind the European Union’s own strategy for the Indo-Pacific, which EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell rolled out on Sept. 16. The AUKUS announcement was not a slight to France or Europe—or, for that matter, to Canada, Japan, or South Korea. It strengthens the hand of all democracies in the Indo-Pacific, including the democracies that aren’t part of the arrangement.

Update, Sept. 18, 2021: This article has been updated to reflect France’s recall of its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.

Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer

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