AUKUS and what it means for the United States’ alliance with France

By Mihika Chechi

~ Op-Ed ~


On September 17, France recalled its ambassadors from the United States for the first time in history. The alliance that began during the American Revolutionary War, and has remained relatively steady since, showed its first signs of crumbling.


This grievous blow to diplomatic relations came two days after the United States announced its part in a new trilateral security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom. The pact, known as AUKUS, involves the U.S. and U.K. arming Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. Such water vessels can move faster, travel farther, and remain underwater longer because they do not need to be refueled.


France’s grievance with AUKUS stemmed from the dissolution of a previous contract in which France agreed to sell Australia twelve state-of-the-art attack class submarines. The $90bn contract was initially made in 2016, but was delayed for years. In addition to the obvious economic and political ramifications of losing this major deal, the way in which French officials learned of AUKUS was determinant of France’s response to the deal. Jean-Pierre Thebault, the French ambassador to Australia who was also recalled by President Emmanuel Macron, remarked that France received no prior notice of this new deal or the termination of the old one; the president was only informed by the news.


French officials voiced their outrage at being excluded from AUKUS and ousted from France’s contract with Australia. The French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, declared the deal as “a major breach of trust and contempt” and a “blow in the back.” Le Drian also imparted France’s regret that the United States failed to include France “at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region…”


The ambassador recall accompanied the cancellation of a U.S.-France gala celebrating the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Chesapeake Bay, a Revolutionary War battle that ended with a paramount naval victory for the French. Both of these abrupt decisions signify the severity of the situation at hand , with the French foreign minister adding that the United States will have to explain its actions. Expert analysts also conclude that the recall of ambassadors is merely “the tip of the iceberg” of France's diminished trust in its allies.


France’s drastic response to the deal is emblematic of the United States’ fracturing relations with its first historical ally. It isn’t the declaration of AUKUS, but instead France’s symbolic response to it, that reveals the teetering state of U.S.-France relations as they once were.


{Left to right: AU PM Scott Morrison, U.S. President Joe Biden, UK PM Boris Johnson}


The deal, though emphasized by White House press secretary Jen Psaki as being “not about any one country,” serves as an implicit response to the increasing friction with China. The South China Sea, a critical international shipping lane for oil and gas resources, has recently been subject to escalating tensions. U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken cautioned these tensions would result in substantial threats to global security and trade if pushed to conflict.


Simply put, the United States’ choice of partners was not exactly a direct snub to France. Rather, the decision arose out of the possibility of mutual gain and made tactical sense for each nation involved. Fresh off its exit from the European Union, Britain saw AUKUS as a chance to prove itself as a crucial actor on the global stage. For Australia, the coalition provided an opportunity to significantly improve its defense capabilities and become the first nation to use nuclear-powered submarines while possessing no nuclear infrastructure. The U.S. stood to improve defense commitments against China’s moves in the South China Sea; energy expert Dan Yergin corroborates that “The number one geopolitical issue is the relationship between the U.S. and China.” With the South China Sea being responsible for one-third of the world’s maritime shipping, the U.S. knows it cannot risk military oversight in the region.


Indeed, Australia’s scrapped program with France was in shambles long before AUKUS’ creation. Australia's complaints included a doubling of the initially-projected budget, an urgent timeline to replace existing submarines, excessive delays, and failure to produce local job openings. The decision to exit its contract with France, while perhaps not communicated courteously, had been a long time coming. As early as January 2021, Australian officials indicated their inclination to review the faltering French contract and even called in Swedish, German and Japanese firms to discuss an alternative project.


France was aware of Australia’s hesitancy to continue with the project long before hearing of the new transatlantic project. With the looming French election in 2022, President Macron’s decision for France to take a stance of personal and public indignation to AUKUS may well serve as a political tool to detract attention from the loss of $90bn in the failed deal. If not an outright attempt at influencing public opinion, Macron’s tight election against Marion Le Pen does call for a shift in strategy. With members of the E.U. now backing the “strategic autonomy” notion to become less reliant on the United States that has consistently been promoted by Macron, evidence of the growth of sentiments beneficial to his campaign are certainly present.


At the moment, the future of the United States’ relationship with France remains uncertain. Though White House officials have disclosed their desire to resolve the two nations’ differences and maintain their long-lasting alliance, the intensity of France’s response leaves the future unknown. Should the European Union continue considering the development of strategic autonomy, any steps taken during this uneasy time would solidify the strategy as being reactionary. This could lay the basis for a more definitive separation between the U.S. and the E.U., in which every unpopular decision made by the United States would result in further disjunction with the European Union.


Certainly, the diplomatic priorities and political strategies of the United States and France are drifting. This calls into question the foundations on which this 243-year-old alliance was built. The next moves taken by France will be decisive in the process of restoring amicable relations with the United States.



Sources Cited:

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9780230582934_2
https://defense360.csis.org/what-is-the-importance-of-the-aukus-announcement-on-submarines/
https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2021-09-15/biden-announce-us-will-share-nuclear-submarine-technology-with-australia
https://goodwordnews.com/france-cancels-gala-evening-in-washington-rt-in-english/
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/18/aukus-france-ambassador-recall-is-tip-of-the-iceberg-say-analysts
https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/16/china-howls-at-perceived-threat-of-new-aukus-agreement-512376
https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-the-united-nations-security-council-meeting-on-maintenance-of-international-peace-and-security-maritime-security/
https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/09/17/aukus-france-submarines-australia/
https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/20/china-will-be-the-biggest-challenge-for-biden-this-year-dan-yergin.html
https://www.politico.eu/article/why-australia-wanted-out-of-its-french-sub-deal/
https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/call-to-review-submarine-program-over-tensions-20210118-p56ux0
https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/after-australia-arms-deal-flop-eu-launch-indo-pacific-plan-2021-09-16/
https://www.cnbc.com/2021/09/17/france-recalls-ambassadors-to-us-australia-to-protest-submarine-deal.html
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