America Should Be Frank With France

The two nations need each other, despite French anger over the Aussie defense deal.

By Walter Russell Mead Sept. 20, 2021 6:05 pm ET

Connoisseurs of fine French pique enjoyed a rare feast last week as France reacted volcanically to its exclusion from the Aukus defense partnership and the cancellation of its $40 billion submarine pact with Australia by recalling two ambassadors. Usually Paris calls back only one when in this mood (see Turkey 2020 and Italy 2019). Better still, as a supreme expression of contempt and disdain, the French hit on the novel punishment of leaving its ambassador to the U.K. in place.

To be sure, the loss of contracts valued at more than $60 billion after cost overruns is a staggering blow to France, whose total defense budget was just above $50 billion in 2020. But its agreement with Australia meant much more than money, and Canberra’s decision to drop a long-term defense relationship with Paris to form the Aukus partnership with London and Washington cuts deep.

It is, to begin with, a massive public humiliation for Emmanuel Macron just as the next French electoral campaign begins to heat up. President Macron and his government were blindsided by a development of vital importance to French interests and international standing. The French Foreign Ministry has accused the Aukus powers of “backstabbing” and even treachery, but it’s the business of a country’s diplomatic, military and intelligence establishments to prevent such surprises. The French don’t elect their presidents to be hapless patsies hornswoggled by stupid Americans, provincial Australians and unspeakable Brits.

But this is bigger than Mr. Macron. The submarine contract was a centerpiece of Paris strategy for the 21st century. Building on its military strength, diplomatic acumen and technological sophistication to defeat Japan in the original competition for the Australian submarine contract, France felt it had established a position of lasting influence in the heart of the Indo-Pacific. Better still, it had outmaneuvered Britain and broken into the Anglophone world of the Five Eyes to become a privileged defense partner of Australia.

The collapse of this glorious dream hits the French hard and triggers deep-seated fears of decline. With Germany ever more dominant in the European Union, and the Anglophone countries marginalizing French influence in much of the rest of the world, what role is left for France? As the French position in Africa continues to weaken in the face of Chinese competition and jihadist violence, and as the limits of its Mediterranean influence from Libya to Lebanon become steadily more evident, the world as seen from Paris grows more grim. With Francophiles like Antony Blinken and John Kerry playing leading roles in the State Department of an anti-Brexit Irish Catholic president, France hoped for better relations with Washington. The French certainly didn’t expect the Biden administration to anoint Boris Johnson as its privileged partner in Europe.

Given the French reaction, Team Biden has been taking friendly fire from liberal internationalists for both the substance of the new partnership and the handling of its formation. Disarmament advocates are horrified by the administration’s apparent intention to supply Australia with the weapons-grade nuclear fuel needed to power advanced nuclear submarines. NATO advocates and Europeanists wonder what has happened to Mr. Biden’s promises to rebuild the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Those concerns are misplaced. Substantively, the formation of Aukus is a major step forward for America’s Indo-Pacific policy, and while the U.S. could have been more tactful, there are few elegant ways to cancel a wedding. Indeed, the perception that Washington is willing to risk alienating an important European partner to advance its Pacific strategy sends an important signal to friends and foes alike.

Aukus is more than an agreement about improving Australia’s submarine fleet. The three countries have also committed in the pact to cooperate across a range of cutting-edge technologies, initiating a period of intensifying military and political cooperation among these already-close allies. Enthusiastically applauded in Tokyo and Taipei, the partnership reassures key regional allies that America’s pivot to the Indo-Pacific is real.

That said, France’s many friends in the U.S. need to think hard about what comes next. Paris is a high-maintenance ally, and it is only natural that some Americans relish the discomfiture of a country that so frequently and stridently lectures us on our shortcomings. But without the contributions of a strong France, many of the most serious problems in American foreign policy—maintaining the stability of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and constructing a stable order in the Indo-Pacific—become significantly more difficult.

Paris aspires to occupy a significant place in world affairs, and it is in America’s interest to help the French find and fulfill it. But the Franco-American strategic dialogue has been superficial. It needs to become deeper and more frank if the West is going to cohere.