The battle of Yorktown (1781), the Statue of Liberty (1886), the Normandy landings (1944), the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954) and the South China Sea (currently), as well as “Gallic sensitivities” and “American arrogance,” were all thrown into a verbal mix of insults this week as part of an unusual fracas between the U.S. and France. At the heart of it all was, well, Australia.
It is never pleasant to be rudely blindsided and discover that your biggest, longest and most trusted ally has, behind your back, negotiated a new “partnership,” with foundations laid for an alliance, and kept you out of the loop entirely. It is exasperating to learn that as part of this new axis, you are about to lose a lucrative submarine-building contract worth approximately $60 billion. It is even more infuriating that the contract then went to other members of that new “partnership” – the one you were royally kept out of.
This is where France found itself last week: out of the partnership, without the contract to build submarines for Australia, with a profound sense of being betrayed by the United States.
France is right. But from a strategic foreign policy point of view, so is the U.S.
In September-October 1781, one of the most decisive battles of the American revolution and War of Independence took place on the Yorktown Peninsula in Virginia. The peninsula is where Jamestown, founded in 1607 as the first English settlement in North America, is located.
Gen. George Washington, aided by a French force commanded by the Marquis de Lafayette – the greatest and most iconic friend of the American revolution – and by Gen. Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur de Rochambeau, laid siege to a large British force commanded by Lord Gen. Charles Cornwallis. The French navy prevented the British from sending reinforcements by sea and by October 19, Cornwallis surrendered and the American revolution was effectively over and the U.S. was an independent, sovereign country.
In Yorktown, an American-French alliance was born. In 1886, France gifted America the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of the friendship between the countries. In 1944, the U.S. led the invasion of Normandy that ultimately freed France from Nazi occupation.
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Then, in September 2021, the U.S. signed a partnership deal with Australia and Great Britain – which the French do not think of as particularly “Great” – leaving France out.
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French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called it a “stab in the back” before recalling France’s ambassadors in the U.S. and Australia, in an arcane 19th-century diplomatic practice that means nothing more than “We’re very upset.” The French ambassador to the U.S., Philippe Étienne, delved into history and tweeted: “Interestingly, exactly 240 years ago the French Navy defeated the British Navy in Chesapeake Bay, paving the way for the victory at Yorktown and the independence of the United States.”
The subtext was clear. Either America forgot, or America has betrayed us.
National pride, emotions and understandable grievances aside, the French may be missing the bigger picture being drawn in Washington.
The U.S. has dramatically shifted its priorities, resources and focus to China. All other arenas and areas of previous interest are relegated to significantly less importance on America’s priorities list – and that includes Europe and the Middle East.
China’s ascendance and projection of power in the Pacific stretches from the Korean Peninsula in the north to Indonesia in the south, and the U.S. views it as a new era of superpower competition and rivalry that requires a massive reallocation of resources.
In fact, the U.S. already has three alliances in place, formal and informal, that cover the area:
1. ANZUS: A 1951 agreement between the U.S., New Zealand and Australia on military and maritime cooperation in the Pacific Ocean.
2. Five Eyes: An intelligence-sharing mechanism and alliance comprising the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand (Winston Churchill’s idea of the supremacy of the English-speaking world).
3. The Quad: Short for “The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” between the U.S., Australia, India and Japan.
All three have one thing in common: Containing and balancing China. Enter AUKUS, the new Australian-U.K.-U.S. partnership. Beijing’s reaction – that Australia’s nuclear submarines deal with the U.S. “gravely undermines regional peace and stability” – indicates that China fully understands what is happening: President Joe Biden, committed to alliance building, has multilateralized the anti-Chinese coalition.
The U.S. expects France to understand that, too.
But for France, it wasn’t just the formation of AUKUS or America’s inappropriate and derisive behavior toward an ally; it was the canceled submarine contract with Australia that aggravated the French the most.
Seven years ago, Australia decided that it needed a new submarine fleet to roam the Pacific and South China Sea. Its aging fleet of Collins-class subs was slated for retirement in 2026. Australia opted for 12 diesel-powered, Barracuda-class submarines from France. The sub could be upgraded to nuclear propulsion, but the French have traditionally refused to export that technology.
Following Australian-French bickering over bloated costs, delivery timetable issues, how much construction would be done in Australia, and hackers penetrating and stealing documents from the French shipbuilder DCNS, the Australians finally signed the deal in 2019 but were not 100-percent satisfied with the decision. However, by the time the submarines will be delivered – 2035 at the earliest – they will be obsolete, their diesel engines incapable of evading detection.
When the Biden administration took office in January, Australia approached the U.S. and made it clear that it wanted out of the French deal. With China becoming the be-all and end-all of American foreign policy, the U.S. was only to happy to help and offered U.S. (and U.K.)-built nuclear submarines instead, as a show of confidence and primacy in the alliance with Australia.
Australia is economically dependent on China. Over a quarter of Australia’s trade, valued at $91 billion, is with China and 43 percent of Australia’s exports are to China.
When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison entered office, he said “we will strengthen ties with China, our number one trading partner, and work with the U.S. Australia doesn’t need to choose.”
Actually, it does – and it just did. Australia needed assurances that the U.S. will be present in the Pacific for the long haul, and got them.
The U.S.’ behavior toward France exhibited little common sense and was perhaps neither smart nor polite, but the vociferous “The U.S. betrays allies” cries are silly and irrelevant. Ultimately, political realism often requires making hard, cruel, zero-sum choices that entail preferring one ally over another, in a crude manner.
America’s prime interest is China, and that inevitably demands revisiting strategies, shifting resources and strengthening regional alliances. Yes, national pride is an important and potent sentiment. But countries are not people and there is no place to be insulted, hurt or sulk. Countries have interests.
As former diplomat Aaron David Miller, who served in five different administrations, put it: “Emmanuel Macron is feeling embarrassed and played by [the] U.S. and Aussies. Throw in the heavily tilted and traditional U.S. relationships with Brits, Australia, Canada, NZ (5 Eyes) and passing of partnership with [Angela] Merkel, and I think Macron is feeling left out. France wanted to manage [the] relationship with China, not have U.S. take lead in confronting Beijing. And then of course there’s the loss of $60-plus billion for French military industry. Nor can you rule out that the tough line makes senses for Macron’s reelection prospects.”