Right on cue, Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated why the Anglosphere democracies do not see him as a reliable partner. In an act of almost comical sulkiness, he has withdrawn his ambassadors from Canberra and Washington, peeved at being frozen out of the AUKUS defence deal. By way of perspective, consider that he is happy to leave his ambassadors in place in Moscow and Beijing.
This is not the first time that Macron has ordered French envoys home in a fit of pique. He withdrew his ambassador from Rome after an Italian politician supported the gilets jaunes, and withdrew his ambassador from Ankara when President Erdogan suggested he might be a bit bonkers.
Macron is incandescent about the formalisation of a naval pact among the three foremost English-speaking powers. The AUKUS alliance is as deep as any that exists among independent states. It provides for the exchange of scientific and military know-how, even of nuclear technology. Its first project is to furnish Australia with a nuclear-powered submarine fleet, an initiative that will create jobs in Barrow and Glasgow, although the final assembly of the vessels will happen in Adelaide.
AUKUS is, on every level, a positive development, a sign that there are still some grown-ups patrolling the playground. Australia will become only the seventh state with a nuclear-powered fleet – quite a statement in the disputed waters of the Pacific. The problem, from Paris’s perspective, is that that deal supplants a previous agreement whereby Australia was supposed to buy diesel-powered subs from France.
News of the pact had France’s leaders (to employ the joke Franglais that Boris sometimes uses) soufflant leurs hauts. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the foreign minister, called it a “stab in the back.” France’s former ambassador to the US, the reliably pompous Gérard Araud, said it was “a low moment”. Bruno Tertrais, from the Fondation pour le Recherche Stratégique, described it as “a Trafalgar-like blow.”
One senses that the French are almost enjoying their anger. It is only human to feel a certain righteous glow when your intuitions seem vindicated, and here is an apparent confirmation of every French prejudice about perfidious Anglo-Saxons. Never mind that, as Australian politicians patiently point out, the contractors had fallen behind schedule. This wasn’t primarily about submarines. It was about a series of more abstract concepts that matter very much to our neighbours: le rang, la gloire, l’amour-propre.
Still, it is worth considering why the Anglosphere leaders acted as they did. France, after all, is one of the few countries in the world capable of projecting global naval force, and has significant territories in the Pacific. Why was it not considered a core ally?
Much of the answer has to do with Macron’s bellicosity towards Britain over the past four years. Again and again, he strained the patience of other EU leaders by picking fights even when there was no European interest at stake. From military satellites to the Irish border, he took up needlessly hardline positions for their own sake.
His objection to equivalence in financial services has arguably hurt EU firms more than it has London banks. His petulant questioning of AstraZeneca’s efficacy fuelled vaccine hesitancy in Africa, and almost certainly caused needless deaths.
On two occasions, first during the Brexit talks and then during the fisheries clash with Jersey, he threatened to cut off cross-channel electricity supplies – the kind of aggression we associate with Vladimir Putin. None of these things, to phrase this as gently as I can, is the act of a reliable ally.
Indeed, at the very moment when the three Anglosphere leaders were sitting down to seal the deal at June’s G7 summit in Cornwall, the French president was ranting about keeping English sausages out of Northern Ireland. The contrast could hardly have been clearer.
But it would be wrong to put all this down to the personality of one president. France’s diplomatic and political elites have generally taken Macron’s line, as have most Eurocrats – although, significantly, not most European national governments. Josep Borrell, the hapless old boob who serves as the EU’s foreign minister, declared himself miffed that he had not been consulted in advance, a sentiment widely echoed in Brussels.
Perhaps we are seeing the re-emergence of an older division, a division that was concealed by the exigencies of the Cold War, but that never went away. Britain and its Anglosphere allies have traditionally thought in maritime terms, whereas France’s outlook has tended to be continental. It was precisely this difference in world-view that Charles de Gaulle cited when explaining his decision to veto Britain’s first two applications for EEC membership.
Britain and France have a necessarily complicated relationship. We have not exchanged hostile fire since 1815 – unless you count the sinking of the French fleet at Oran in 1940 after it refused to scuttle, an episode about which the less said the better. Indeed, we have been allies (more or less) since 1904. Yet, for much of that time, we were frenemies, jostling for commercial and diplomatic advantage even as we recognised that, when the chips were down, we shared an interest in each other’s success.
One of the occasions when we deployed military force together was the joint invasion of Suez in 1956, which ended in failure for want of American support – a decision Eisenhower regretted to his dying day. The UK and France drew radically differing conclusions from that débâcle.
The British believed that the breakdown in communications between London and Washington had been disastrous, and that the triumph of freedom in the world depended on a closer Anglo-American alliance. The French, by contrast, concluded that the United States could not be relied on, and that their security depended upon building and leading a European bloc. The Treaty of Rome was signed the following year.
As long as Soviet tanks were massed beyond the Elbe, these differences were, if not completely forgotten, at least deferred. France withdrew from Nato’s integrated command, but still carried herself as a member of the Western alliance – a difficult and independent-minded member, to be sure, but, in the last analysis, a member prepared to do her bit. Britain, for her part, saw the defence of Western Europe as her primary strategic goal, withdrawing from her Asian and African bases so as to be able to afford her Nato commitments.
Diplomatic assumptions can last for decades after their original rationale has passed, but the overshoot does not go on forever. The end of the Cold War allowed France to think once again in continental terms, and Britain once again to raise her eyes to the open main. We have moved, very suddenly, back into a multi-polar world, a world of shifting alliances and interests. The collapse of the USSR removed Nato’s primary purpose and released its members to pursue different paths. As geographical proximity loses its importance, Britain has joined the United States in a Pacific pivot.
To a certain kind of Frenchman, that strategy is further proof that the British have contracted out their foreign policy to Washington. Indeed, some Elysée officials were spinning the decision to leave their London legation unchanged as a subtle snub, a sign that they regarded Britain as an American colony, not worth quarrelling with in her own right. On Friday evening, France’s minister for European affairs, Clément Beaune, described British policy as a form of “accepted vassal status” under the US.
What never seems to occur to these clever énarques is that Britain, the United States and Australia, because they have a shared political heritage, tend to approach problems in the same way. They value, because their institutions have taught them to value, personal freedom. They acknowledge a responsibility to uphold, as far as they can, a law-based and liberal international order. They are prepared to stand up to bullies – especially when one of their own is being targeted.
Australia has been subjected to diplomatic and economic sanctions from Beijing since it called for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19. Britain could not, in conscience, leave its ally unsupported. If that meant helping her acquire the most effective submarines, so be it.
Australia is in a dangerous neighbourhood. China’s vast territorial ambitions leave it with hostile claims, not only against contiguous countries, but against the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. The Anglosphere allies are not the aggressors here.
Still, someone has to step up and preserve international law. Someone has to uphold the rights of small countries threatened by overweening neighbours. Someone has to protect the principles of national sovereignty and territorial jurisdiction. Not for the first time, it seems that the responsibility for defending liberty has fallen to the English-speaking democracies.