The Biden Administration Needs to Act Fast to Reset Relations with France
Major White House national security announcements rarely (if ever?) mimic plot lines from romantic comedies. But the announcement of a new security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (shortened to “AUKUS”) that will, among other things, equip Australia with advanced nuclear-powered submarines — which resulted in the termination of an existing $66 billion submarine deal Australia had with France — created a fallout worthy of any rom-com. France, left at the altar by Australia, and betrayed by its wedding party, is now looking to get even. France recalled its ambassador from Washington for consultations — and there’s nothing funny about how ugly things can get unless the Biden administration takes concrete steps to repair ties with Paris.
The announcement of the submarine deal — made by President Joe Biden, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a joint, virtual speech — completely blindsided France. Officials in the French government and national security community thought it had entered a lasting, decades-long partnership with Australia when they signed an agreement in 2016 to buy 12 diesel-electric submarines. It was France’s largest arms sales in history and was central to its Indo-Pacific strategy. Just two weeks ago, France and Australian foreign and defense ministers met and agreed on “the importance of the Future Submarine program.” Shockingly, Australia failed to tell France before the White House announcement that it was canceling the deal. As a result, France learned of the agreement like the rest of us, from the press. Even more galling for France is that three Anglo-allies spent months collaborating yet deliberately kept France in the dark. France says top U.S. and Australian officials deceived them in one-on-one meetings throughout the summer. French Foreign Ministry Jean-Yves Le Drian called it a “stab in the back.”
For Washington, French outrage has taken some of the shine off of what the White House rightly sees as a massive accomplishment. The submarine agreement with Australia and the United Kingdom is a legacy achievement for the Biden administration. It solidifies America’s China strategy and cements U.S. relations with Australia, a key U.S. ally that has fought alongside American troops in every major military engagement since World War I. Australia has been subject to brutal economic and political coercion from Beijing in the last several years, and the new Australia-U.K.-U.S. deal is a key signal that Washington will help Canberra defend its vital security interests. As a result, the White House might be tempted to say all’s fair in love and arms sales, and dismiss French complaints as a mere tantrum that will pass.
But the United States now has a huge problem.
Franco-American relations are in danger of entering a costly downward spiral, not seen since the fallout from France’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Yet, this dispute could become way more damaging to U.S. interests, given the depth of France’s sense that America betrayed its confidence, France’s role in NATO and the European Union, and the growing importance of U.S.-E.U. cooperation on a host of important geopolitical issues, such as climate, trade, and technology regulation. France is not going to allow this to simply blow over.
The Biden administration needs to act fast to try to reset relations with Paris. In the short term, Washington should invite French President Emmanuel Macron to Washington with the expressed purpose of building a new Franco-American partnership. As part of the outreach, and the key enticement for France, the Biden administration should agree to support one of Macron’s top foreign policy priorities: the development of E.U. defense capabilities. This would represent a major change in U.S. foreign policy toward Europe, which has long opposed the development of E.U. defense efforts due to fears that it would undermine NATO and America’s role in Europe. Revamping America’s approach to Europe is not what the Biden administration had in mind when announcing an enhanced security partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom. But, to prevent a drastic deterioration in the trans-Atlantic alliance, it’s what is now demanded.
This Is Bad and it Could Get Much Worse
France is unlikely to compartmentalize or silo its outrage. France, like the United States, is a proud republican nation with global ambitions and an outlook that is prickly slighted. Paris has already pulled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia, cancelled a Washington gala, and more substantively said it was unlikely to support continuing E.U. trade talks with Australia. It will continue to make itself heard.
French efforts to voice its displeasure with the United States will go beyond symbolic gestures. This is not to say France will just lash out. But France will have little interest in making compromises or seeking common ground with Washington on issues about which it does not care or on which it differs. This could have real blowback at NATO and its once-a-decade efforts to develop a new “strategic concept” for the alliance, which is not a major French preoccupation. France could also seek to find daylight with the United States on China and the Indo-Pacific or could up its engagement with Russia, undermining U.S. efforts to forge trans-Atlantic unity. While reaching out to Russia has at times alienated its E.U. allies in Central and Eastern Europe, France has a history of holding out hope that engagement with Russia might moderate Moscow’s belligerent approach to Europe.
But U.S. officials should also appreciate that the submarine fallout may affect technology, trade, and even climate issues. While France can’t determine or dictate outcomes at the European Union on its own, it can certainly block agreements, push Brussels to take a harder line on trade and regulatory disputes with the United States, reduce the E.U. Commission’s negotiating leeway, and make the European Union a less flexible negotiating partner. For instance, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen travelled to Europe in July and pressed the European Union to drop or postpone their efforts to impose digital taxes on big U.S. technology companies so as not to upset talks at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on a global corporate minimum tax, a major Biden administration priority. The European Union agreed to hold off until October, causing some political blowback in the European Parliament. Perhaps France will push the European Union to go forward with its digital tax proposal or will escalate its own unilateral efforts on digital taxes and dare the United States to retaliate.
The bilateral diplomatic crisis will overshadow the much anticipated U.S.-E.U. Trade and Technology Council, which will meet in Pittsburgh in late September. The talks are critical to aligning the United States and European Union on key issues central to competition with China, such as 5G technology, digital regulation, and preventing Chinese acquisition of sensitive technologies, especially related to AI. Making progress in harmonizing trans-Atlantic approaches in areas of domestic regulation was always going to be difficult — France, if it chooses, has the power to make it almost impossible. Additionally, the United States and European Union will need to work together to reconcile their climate and trade policies, such as over the European Union’s creation of a tax on carbon-intensive imports. This will require careful negotiations with both sides showing some flexibility. In short, France has a lot of ways to make itself heard.
Without a significant U.S. effort to repair ties with France, there is a very real danger that the current crisis will have debilitating long-term damage not just for bilateral cooperation but for the trans-Atlantic alliance as a whole. America’s inept handling of the Australian submarine agreement undermined Atlanticists in the French security establishment, especially those that have worked for years to make the case that France should work with the United States in addressing concerns about China and Indo-Pacific security. That the United States humiliated France in such a brazen way has discredited those views completely. Instead, the episode will empower stakeholders in Paris who advocate for a much cooler relationship with Washington and — tapping into the Gaullist foreign policy tradition — wish to be allied with the United States, but not necessarily aligned on key issues related to Russia and China. If these arguments win out, France can stall progress and upend trans-Atlantic cooperation. This will exasperate American officials and bureaucrats and activate anti-French sentiment lurking in the U.S. government. The mutual suspicion that is already present within some elements of the bureaucracies of both governments will get worse. Frustrated and impatient, U.S. officials will throw up their hands, decry the inability to get things done, and further reduce their engagement with Europe — because why bother? Hence, a trans-Atlantic alliance badly in need of renewal after a rough four years of the Trump administration will instead wither further.
France Is a Serious Security Actor Around the World
Washington needs to work hard to get Franco-American relations back on track. While, in the past, the Washington security policy community might have dismissed French concerns, France’s position within the European Union, a market equivalent in size to the United States and China, gives it considerable clout and leverage. With Angela Merkel leaving the European stage after 16 years in office, and a new German government likely to prioritize establishing strong Franco-German relations over ties with Washington, Macron’s role will only become more important in Europe.
France has also emerged as a critical military partner for the United States over the last decade. After Brexit, France has by far the most capable military within the European Union. It spends 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense and is willing to project military force to defend its interests. France has taken the lead in the Sahel, intervening in 2013 to stop the Malian government from falling to Islamist extremists. It continues to maintain thousands of forces in the region. Olivier-Rémy Bel of the French Ministry of Defense explained that the “limited but critical, and largely non-combatant, support” the United States provides in the form of air-refueling and drone surveillance “increases many times over the abilities of the French, European, and African forces fighting on the ground and shouldering most of the burden.” This summer, France and the United States signed a roadmap to increase special forces cooperation for counter-terrorism operations. On the same day France found out about the new partnership between Canberra, London, and Washington, it announced that French forces had killed the top Islamic State leader in Africa, who the United States held responsible for the deaths of four U.S. soldiers and at least six Nigerien soldiers in Niger. Macron noted that France would continue the fight against terrorism in the Sahel “with our African, European and American partners.”
France is also a key player in the Indo-Pacific. French Polynesia in the South Pacific is a French overseas collectivity (collectivité d’outre-mer) — an administrative division of France somewhat similar to a protectorate — giving France the second largest exclusive economic zone in the world. France has 7,000 permanently deployed forces in the region and a powerful capable navy that also features nuclear-attack submarines. France conducts freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan strait. In April, it hosted joint naval exercises with the United States, Australia, Japan, and India in the Bay of Bengal. France has a strong military relationship with India. It is providing India with 36 advanced Rafale fighter jets, which will significantly modernize India’s fighter fleet. All of this — as well as the European Union’s increased focus on the Indo-Pacific and its crucial role in setting standards on trade, technology, and supply chain issues — makes mending ties with France essential to U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific.
Washington may legitimately protest that it is not to blame for Australia’s cancellation of the submarine program with France. This was an Australian decision and it was up to Canberra to let Paris know about the cancellation. However, the fundamental source of France’s outrage is the way in which American officials engaged in secret diplomacy — and apparently misled Paris in high level meetings — on an issue of significant strategic and industrial importance. As a result, the Biden administration, and the president himself, is going to need a concerted effort to convince France that it is truly a valued partner of the United States. This will require more than a few words of praise from Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Setting up an apologetic phone call is not going to cut it. Instead, the administration will need to take some bold steps.
What Washington Should Do Now
The White House should begin repairing ties with France by inviting Macron to Washington for a state visit. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited in July and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is visiting next week, Macron has not yet been invited to Washington during the Biden administration. Washington should make clear that the purpose of the visit isn’t just to soothe bruised egos. Instead, it should be about resetting relations, with the vision of building a new Franco-American partnership.
The goal of the visit should be to reverse the broad mistrust between the U.S. and French national security bureaucracies and to lay the groundwork for more intensive cooperation. France, as noted, is already a close U.S. military partner, but the diplomatic, military, and intelligence relationship could certainly be deepened. The United States and France could agree to set up more structured dialogues and engagements, such as regular political-military talks. These occur regularly with the United Kingdom but are much more intermittent with France. The goal should be to build trust through these engagements, laying the groundwork for deeper defense and security cooperation, in particular in relation to the Indo-Pacific, the Sahel, and defense sales.
But by far the biggest step the Biden administration can take is to back E.U. defense efforts. During Macron’s visit, Biden should give clear and strong remarks of U.S. support. The United States and France should release a joint statement that outlines the principles and objectives of E.U. defense. And the United States should commit to using its considerable diplomatic clout in Europe to support the development of E.U. defense.
This would go a long way toward mending relations. Developing E.U. defense is perhaps Macron’s top geopolitical priority. It is so important to Macron that he is convening a major summit on E.U. defense just prior to the French presidential elections next year. This will likely be the focal point of the French presidency of the European Union, and Macron will be desperate for it to be a success.
But for Macron’s E.U. defense ambitions to materialize, he needs U.S. support. Other E.U. members, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, simply will not support E.U. defense efforts if the United States is not on board. Countries that face an existential threat from Russia (e.g., Poland and the Baltic states) need to be assured that E.U. defense initiatives won’t lead the United States to become less engaged in Europe or NATO. The United States has also long urged European governments to increase their defense spending, but has opposed E.U. defense on the grounds that it would detract from NATO. The United States has used its influence to press E.U. members, such as the United Kingdom (before it withdrew from the European Union) and Poland, to oppose various E.U. defense proposals. Hence, while the European Union made major advances, the bold E.U. defense proposals of the 1990s went almost nowhere.
None of this would matter if European defense was not in such a shambolic state. European militaries have, with few exceptions, experienced decades of decline. Overall, European forces are now in a shocking state of readiness. European defense budgets are stretched trying to balance maintaining aging equipment or investing in new high-end equipment. But the problem is not just low European spending. It is that almost every European country is trying to operate a full spectrum military, leading to tremendous waste and fragmentation. The European Union collectively spends as much on defense as a major global power, roughly $200 billion annually, but, because this spending is divided between 27 member states, Europe is far weaker than the sum of its parts. E.U. member states operate more than 37 different types of tanks and 19 different combat aircraft, making operating together exceptionally difficult. Thus, if the European Union had wanted to insert forces to Hamid Karzai International Airport to evacuate E.U. citizens they likely wouldn’t have been be able to do so without the United States. Hence, European security is thus firmly dependent on the United States.
On the one hand, the decrepit state of European militaries is a huge indictment of post-Cold War U.S. policy toward Europe. On the other hand, the major concern of the United States in the 1990s was that it would lose influence in Europe. In that sense, U.S. policy has been successful, since Europe is as dependent as ever. But this is not a good situation for the United States or Europe. It is not the 1990s anymore. The United States has pivoted to Asia and isn’t focused on Europe. And yet, U.S. policy toward European defense remains unchanged, as if it is just as attentive to European security interests as it was, as if nothing has changed geopolitically, and as if the European Union didn’t exist.
This situation totally exasperates France, which is why it has pushed the European Union to start taking security into its own hands. While the Biden administration has softened past U.S. opposition, it has not fully endorsed E.U. defense efforts either. This has disappointed Macron, who was hoping the Biden administration would change U.S. policy. As part of a future state visit, the United States should agree to support E.U. defense efforts and should offer to use its diplomatic leverage to reassure skeptical Central and Eastern European countries that ambitious expansion of E.U. defense initiatives has America’s seal of approval. In exchange, the United States should insist that France support strong E.U.-NATO coordination and that France define “strategic autonomy” as Europe developing the capabilities to act on its own, and drop the more expansive conception that is occasionally advanced, of the E.U. decoupling from the United States or NATO.
What should make this concession palatable to the White House is that it is firmly in America’s interests. Even without the submarine fallout, it would be time for a shift to America’s post-Cold War approach to European defense to embrace the role of the European Union and encourage E.U. members to integrate forces, pursue joint procurements, gain economies of scale, and reduce their reliance on U.S. forces to operate. Crucially, this will strengthen NATO, not detract from it, as Europe would become militarily more capable. The central mission of NATO, linking the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe together would remain unchanged. The major shift for NATO would involve intensifying E.U.-NATO coordination.
Fears that E.U. defense will simply become a tool of a French foreign policy belie the fact that France doesn’t control or dictate what happens at the European Union. If France goes too far on a particular issue, Poland, Germany, other E.U. members, or the E.U. Commission itself will stymie it. Furthermore, U.S. support for E.U. defense won’t magically make it materialize. Building an E.U. defense capacity is a generational effort. There are also differences of view within the European Union, in addition to understandable skepticism of French motives from some European countries. Any ambitious E.U. defense proposal will also have to make it through the European Union’s laborious legislative process, full of tense negotiations and veto points. It is possible, maybe even likely, that, even with U.S. support, the European Union will be unable to reach an agreement on any far-reaching defense proposals.
Nevertheless, embracing E.U. defense will require the White House to overcome considerable internal opposition. The State Department has spent the last 23 years — ever since Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed reservations — vigorously opposing a greater defense role for the European Union. A generation of foreign service officers have thus spent their careers opposing the concept.
The U.S. defense industry will also make its voice heard. American defense companies are nervous about the future of E.U. defense and have stepped up its lobbying against E.U. efforts. They worry that France would dominate the European Union, and would try to lock U.S. defense companies out of the European defense market. Hence, Washington wants to ensure the involvement of the U.S. defense industry in potential E.U. defense procurements. But the United States should drop the demand that the European Defense Agency sign an “administration arrangement” with the United States before launching U.S.-E.U. defense talks. Washington argues that this expands U.S.-E.U. defense cooperation but, to France — and many other E.U. members that hide behind French opposition — this is simply the United States trying to involve itself in E.U. defense procurements. This also raises concerns that E.U. defense exports could be subject to stringent U.S. export rules if they include parts and components from U.S. companies. The United States simply needs to accept that, if European governments are going to spend more on defense, they are going to buy European.
The United States needs to do something big to reset relations with France. It should use this opportunity to offer its unreserved support for E.U. defense initiatives. Doing so would represent a sea change in America’s approach to Europe. It would also lay the groundwork for European defense integration, strengthen the European Union, and hopefully reestablish a strong Franco-American partnership. It would certainly be quite the plot twist for this fracas to end up bringing the United States and France closer together. But isn’t that how romcoms always end? Let’s hope the United States can pull it off. But, to do so, it will need to act — and fast.
Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. From 2011 to 2017, he served as a senior advisor and member of the Policy Planning Staff at the Department of State, where he focused on political-military affairs.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that French Polynesia is a French “overseas collectivity” (collectivité d’outre-mer) and not simply a “French protectorate.”
Image: U.S. Army