Why Biden's 'Clumsiness' Might Prompt France to Seek Greater Strategic Autonomy for Europe
14:58 GMT 30.10.2021 (Updated: 21:39 GMT 18.10.2022)
US President Joe Biden met with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on 29 October and admitted that his administration acted "clumsy" while handling the trilateral US-UK-Australia security agreement, depriving France of defence contracts worth billions of dollars.
Commenting on his negotiations with Joe Biden in the French Embassy to the Holy See, Emmanuel Macron said that he and the American president "clarified together what we had to clarify." The French leader further noted that "what really matters now is what we will do together in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years."
In September, Australia tore up a submarine deal with the French worth $90 billion to acquire nuclear-powered subs technology from the US and UK. In response, Paris recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia (but not the UK) in what international media called an "unprecedented" move.
France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced the backroom deal as a "stab in the back," adding that it was wrong for allies to behave with "such brutality, such unpredictability." For his part, French EU Affairs Minister Clément Beaune linked the botched deal to France's growing mistrust in Brits: "Basically we see it with Brexit, we see it with the AUKUS project," highlighted Beaune.
Deception & Failed Expectations
"It's clear Australia has played a double game, I think," says Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy and Director of Thayer Consultancy. "We know at the 11th hour, the day before the announcement, diplomatic notes were passed to the French government, to Macron and the foreign minister... But what they didn't say is, ‘Oh, we're also secretly negotiating with the Brits and the US to drop the contract and to pick up nuclear power.’ So it wasn't comely, it was deception."
Although the French appear to be rightly outraged and are likely to remain angry for some time, "Biden handled it right this time," suggests Dr. Michael O’Hanlon, the Brookings Institution’s director of research in foreign policy and adjunct professor at Georgetown’s Centre for Security Studies.
Given that the core interests of Washington and Paris are fundamentally aligned when it comes – in particular – to the Sahel, Middle East, NATO and Russia they were destined to come to compromise, according to him. Still, he predicts that it will take time to repair relations.
30 October 2021, 11:49 GMT
Biden's apologies about a so-called misunderstanding or clumsy diplomacy "won’t really do a great deal to mend the relationship," argues Joseph Camilleri, emeritus professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne and one of Australia's leading international relations scholars, specialising in France-US relations.
"Although Biden has acknowledged that it was clumsy diplomacy on America's part, the fact is that the line taken by all three signatories to the AUKUS agreement, the way they have explained it, has not gone down particularly well with the French and the president in particular," Camilleri says. "And the reason for this is that for France there was much more at stake than whether or not they were consulted in a timely fashion."
For Paris, the more pressing thing is that it were excluded from the deal in a way the French government believes was unacceptable, the professor underscores, adding that the loss of a lucrative contract was secondary.
Yet another issue is failed expectations, according to Camilleri. The "clumsy" AUKUS deal came after Trump's presidency, which frustrated many of Washington's European allies and EU members, including France, who were expecting that Biden's victory would bring "grown-ups" back to the White House.
However, now "they are thinking that maybe the way Trump dealt with them was not quite an aberration, but even with Biden now as president, there is a sense of an Anglo-club in which Western Europe will be regarded as a second-class citizen," the professor emphasises.
"Given Biden's promises of a new inclusive multilateralism that would improve the American image after four years of Trump's America First unilateralism, I think the affair will augment French/European skepticism about American promises, whether made by Republican or Democratic leaderships," echoes Hall Gardner, professor of international politics at the American University of Paris.
21 February 2021, 12:16 GMT
Macron's Concept of 'Strategic Autonomy'
Macron is likely to act as if his relationship with the POTUS never took a dive following his latest meeting with Biden, and he will definitely use the affair "to press the Europeans into forging a more politically 'autonomous' European defence capability," Gardner underscores.
During the February 2021 Munich Security Conference, the French president placed a great emphasis on Europe's "strategic autonomy."
He also suggested that NATO's new blueprint should involve "a dialogue with Russia," although it comes in contradiction with the Pentagon and NATO's new doctrines, which see Moscow and Beijing as their new major challenges. Furthermore, Macron insisted that "it's time for [Europe] to take much more of the burden for our own protection," in a reference to the much-discussed issue of an EU Army.
Apparently, as "compensation" for Washington's "clumsiness," Biden could allow Macron to push ahead with his plans and "make it easier for the Europeans to develop a more autonomous defence capability, but one that is still linked to NATO," suggests the professor. Still, Gardner insists that what's needed is not a new European arms build-up, but a change in American strategy.
"What is needed is the implementation of an alternative US-EU global strategy that seeks to ameliorate US and EU relations with Russia and China and works to mitigate the ongoing conflicts between Ukraine and Russia, China and Taiwan, and Iran vs. Saudi Arabia and Israel, while seeking new regional political and economic diplomatic approaches to ongoing wars in the Sahel and elsewhere," the professor emphasises.
He argues that full trust between the US, France, and the rest of Europe can only be achieved "once the US and Europe begin to implement a common transatlantic strategy for global peace and sustainable development."
"Otherwise, trust between all the major power blocs will continue to deteriorate," Gardner concludes.