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The recent and still ongoing Franco-American crisis surrounding the AUKUS agreement is undoubtedly the most serious one since 2003, when France had refused to join the United States in its war against Iraq. Evidencing this, the former went as far as recalling its ambassadors from both the latter and Australia, something which had never been done before. The French reaction is understandable, to say the least. Not only did France lose what has been coined the “contrat du siècle” (contract of the century), but also felt betrayed by one of its closest allies. While we do not have all the details (so far?), it seems that it is Australia, and then the United Kingdom, which initiated the move, not the United States. Yet, it is the latter which gets most of the blame from Paris. What actually hurt France the most is the way the Biden administration handled the whole matter, calling it an “unacceptable behavior between allies” – especially since the new administration had made clear it was seeking to tighten its links and cooperate more with allies (see for instance pp. 6, 10), breaking with the Trump administration’s legacy of unilateralism.
However, the conclusion of a “security pact” with Australia should come as no surprise. Indeed, the American strategic documents both under the Trump and Biden administrations (such as the National Defense Strategy of 2018, the Interim Security Strategy, and the Annual Threat Assessment of 2021) clearly affirmed that: American global primacy is essential; China is the United States’ primary adversary; and that the United States wished to reinforce its alliance with Australia (on this particular point, see Interim Security Strategy, p. 10). As a result, this agreement is the logical continuation and implementation of American policy towards the critical Indo-Pacific region. Yet, the way the pact was negotiated and concluded behind France’s back, and the obvious lack of consideration from the United States for its oldest ally is paradoxical, and contrary to American interests, including in the Indo-Pacific. It is the case for two reasons: first, France could be a relevant ally in the Indo-Pacific, and Washington just marginalized it. Second, the Biden administration, by acting the way it did, might have unintentionally pushed for the creation of a “non-aligned block” in the Indo-Pacific, which would likely be against its interests.
Upsetting France: A Bizarre and Counterproductive Move
Some could argue that while unfortunate and avoidable, the present situation is no big deal. After all, the United States is ensuring its interests in the Indo-Pacific, and hurting an ally as collateral damage will be compensated by the future benefits ripped by AUKUS (the tripartite “security pact” concluded between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States). However, in this situation, France is not just any ally.
France: An Ally in the Indo-Pacific
French Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly said so herself: France is an Indo-Pacific nation. It has territories in the area, hosting about 1,6 million citizens and more than 7,000 soldiers (p. 3). Furthermore, French military assets are deployed on both ends of the region, split among three sovereign bases in Mayotte/Réunion, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, and two bases in foreign states, Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates. This allows France to cover the whole region from East to West. Additionally, France owns one of the few “blue-water navies,” meaning the Marine nationale (National Navy) can project power worldwide – partially thanks to its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Moreover, France is the sole European power and Member State of the European Union to possess territory in the Indo-Pacific. Finally, on top of these material assets, France has the will to intervene in the region and be a relevant actor there.
Consequently, France is a relevant player in the Indo-Pacific – although of limited impact as of yet – for geostrategic and military reasons. While France wants to offer an alternative to the current competition between China and the United States in the area, it is clear that if it had no choice but to pick a side between the former and the latter, France would always pick the latter. Indeed, despite the crisis, French President Emmanuel Macron stated that the United States was a “great historical ally” with similar values, and that it will remain so in the future. Which is why Washington’s decision to negotiate AUKUS behind France’s back and to blatantly exclude it from any kind of talks in this regard is strategically paradoxical. Indeed, France could be a useful partner to the United States’ strategy in the Indo-Pacific. And even if it remained non-aligned, having a friendly state in the area would always be useful.
Marginalizing Potential Support
By failing to include France in talks, the Biden administration unnecessarily upset one of its oldest allies who could stand by its side in the Indo-Pacific under the right circumstances. As a result, Paris now has more evidence that it needs to be less dependent on Washington, which ultimately means it is less likely to support American objectives in the Indo-Pacific – and more generally less likely to easily comply with American wishes, at least in the short term.
By acting the way it did, the Biden administration pushed France to question the reliability of the United States as an ally, and of NATO as a whole. This led Paris to, once more, push for more strategic autonomy among Europeans and be less dependent on Washington. On top of things, this event came soon after the United States suddenly evacuated Afghanistan with little to no prior consultation of its allies. Furthermore, this is not the first time that France loses an arms contract to the United States in a way whose fairness could be questioned by some. Only a few months back, in June 2021, the Swiss government had decided to buy American-made F-35 airplanes, excluding the French-made Rafale. This decision came only two weeks after a visit from Joe Biden during which “security relationships” were discussed. While the exact content of such talks is unknown, it is understandable from an exterior perspective how this could be seen as shady. Consequently, over the course of only four months, the United States was involved in three decisions which gave reason to the French government to be upset.
American policymakers need to remember – or learn – that France is a country that traditionally has preferred not to be aligned on anyone’s policy – including the United States’ – and to pursue its own path. This is in large part the legacy of General Charles de Gaulle, who formulated what became the cornerstone of the post-Second World War French foreign policy. Also, France undoubtedly wants to maintain its power and influence in the world, and probably would like to regain (some of) its former power. This is for the political leadership. Regarding the French population, it might not share the exact same goals as the former or have the same grasp on international affairs, but one thing is certain: it does not want to blindly follow American leadership. This is probably true especially in case of a war it would not perceive as necessary, in particular after the debacle in Afghanistan.
And in a war against China, it is likely the French population would only support being involved under certain circumstances, for instance if the People’s Republic is the clear aggressor. If involvement in the conflict would not clearly serve French interests and/or ensure the safety of the country, it is unclear how the French population would react to a military intervention. France does not view the current tensions between the United States and China as a struggle between the embodiment of “good” Western liberal democracies and the “evil” Chinese communist regime who poses a threat to the entire world order. Instead, France seems to view it – with reason – as a cold, calculated struggle for global power between two hegemons. Consequently, France – both from the perspective of the government and the population – is unlikely to blindly follow the United States in its competition with China for global hegemony, for all the reasons mentioned above. It is even less likely to do so if it feels like Washington disrespects it, which is exactly what happened.
Furthermore, this whole affair could be damageable to the standing and prestige of the current administration at the very least, and potentially of the entire country. The Trump administration had already damaged American prestige and reliability, but the Biden administration vowed to be different. It vowed to break the era of unilateralism, and promoted stronger partnerships and alliances. Yet, Joe Biden showed the world that it is unclear to what extent he actually means that. Within about a month, he ignored allies twice: first in Afghanistan, and then regarding the submarine affair. The accumulation of diplomatic mistakes in such a short amount of time might encourage more Indo-Pacific states to seek another option besides China or the United States.
Pushing For the Creation of a Non-Aligned Block?
It is probably in the United States’ interest to rally as many Indo-Pacific states as possible in order to contain China. Yet, by acting the way it did, the Biden administration actually pushed away an important ally. As a matter of fact, soon after the deal with Australia was scrapped, France and India engaged in talks, promoting a shared approach based on “regional stability and the rule of law, while ruling out any form of hegemony.” France already had a partnership with India (p.6), and both countries concluded a consequent arms deal in 2016 for the acquisition of French-made Rafale jets. So this move should not be seen as revolutionary or game-changing per se. However, it might indicate that France will seek to push even harder for a “third path” (p. 2) in the Indo-Pacific.
With the recent evidence that the Biden administration, despite what it said in the past, can act in a ruthlessly unilateral fashion, other countries might be tempted to join such a “third path” in the region to ensure their own interests will be as much as possible preserved from the American-Chinese competition. France may attempt to court countries in this regard such as India, Japan, and Member States of the ASEAN (pp. 39-44). Furthermore, such an alternative could be reinforced by the addition of the European Union, which released its Indo-Pacific strategy in September 2021 – and which France definitely wants to bring into the fray (p. 69). However, it is unclear whether France (and the European Union) can offer as much as the United States or China could, so it would have to be smart about it and find ways to be a more attractive partner. Still, the possibility of a “third path” made up of non-aligned countries is real – and by acting the way it did, the United States might have pushed France to advocate even harder for such a path in the future, which would likely result in a loss of influence for Washington in the region.
The French-American crisis will very likely be resolved at some point in the future. As French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian pointed out, time and acts from the United States will be needed. As a matter of fact, the expected phone call between Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron finally happened, and might have resulted in a gesture of good-will from the American president. Indeed, the United States publicly approved and acknowledged the “importance of a stronger and more capable European defense […] that is complementary to NATO.”
It marks quite an important step for the construction of a potential European defense. The approval of NATO’s leader for the development of an alternative defense in Europe is essential. Indeed, France had been pushing for such independent European defense, but faced opposition from some states which preferred to rely on NATO and considered any kind of other defense organization as unnecessary and counterproductive competition to it. It is unclear whether the submarine crisis pushed Joe Biden to concede this, or if he would have made a similar statement at some point in the future regardless. Either way, it is likely the current affair sped-up the process if he was indeed going to do so.
To conclude, it can be said that the way the United States handled the submarine affair – combined with other factors – frustrated France and pushed it away, although Paris could be an asset to American strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Washington also shed doubt on its reliability and the importance it pays to its allies and partners. On the one hand, the Biden administration pursued its own interests – which makes sense and is to be expected; on the other, it acted against its own principles (breaking with “Trumpist unilateralism”) and put unnecessary obstacles between itself and one of its oldest allies – which happens to be the most potent military power of the European Union, and the only European power to be permanently present in the Indo-Pacific. There lies the strategic paradox.
Lorris Beverelli is a French national who holds a Master of Arts in Security Studies with a concentration in Military Operations from Georgetown University. He was published by The Strategy Bridge, Small Wars Journal, RealClearDefense, The National Interest and the Georgetown Security Studies Review (The Forum). He created the military history blog War Writers (https://warwriters.com/).