AUKUS Is Awkward, but Not Abnormal: How U.S. Foreign Policy Experts Think About America’s Alliances


Many had thought a Biden presidency would mean a return to appreciative and cooperative relationships between the United States and its allies and partners around the world. France certainly did — before the United States and Britain scuttled a $66 billion French conventional submarine deal with Australia in order to make their own sale of nuclear-powered submarines to the land down under.

To be fair to the Aussies, the technical specifications on the U.S.-U.K. submarines are superior to the ones included in the 2016 contract with France. Plus, the increasing price tag and delayed timing of the original deal with Paris also fed into Australia’s decision to back out from the deal.



But the manner in which the new AUKUS deal was unveiled prompted outrage and a sense of betrayal from the French government. According to news reports, U.S. officials only gave their French counterparts a few hours’ advance notice before the announcement went public. “A knife in the back” is how one French official described the decision. French President Emmanuel Macron went so far as to recall France’s ambassadors to both the United States and Australia in reaction. And all this happened in the tailwinds of the disappointing U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which also raised questions about America’s commitment to its allies.

The bungled diplomacy surrounding these events is disheartening, but is it surprising? Not for us. Our recent research shows that for the people who make and influence U.S. foreign policy, treaty allies are not always as significant a factor as we expect them to be. In fact, we find that depending on the circumstances, U.S. foreign policy experts can consider treaty allies dispensable. America’s recent behavior signals that “ally” is in the eye of the beholder — and sometimes, it comes at the expense of one ally over another.

Allies Matter, Just Not Always

How could a submarine deal open a breach this wide in U.S.-French relations? Our recent survey experiment among U.S. foreign policy experts helps answer that question.

Between October and December 2020, we surveyed nearly 700 respondents who work in Congress, various federal agencies that engage in international affairs, foreign policy think tanks, and in U.S. universities as international relations scholars. We first wanted to learn whether the respondents would alter their policy preferences depending on how exactly we described the counterpart with which the United States is engaging.

To capture these preferences, we asked the respondents whether they would favor or oppose international counterparts that fight against U.S. adversaries in the Middle East. Respondents received one of four scenarios to characterize the counterpart: treaty ally, non-treaty ally, nonstate actor, or simply “actor.” We deliberately kept the adversaries and counterparts unnamed so as not to influence our respondents.

Our results show that U.S. foreign policy elites consider treaty alliances the most important type of relationship. Even though our wording of the question remained exactly the same, how we described the counterpart generated different degrees of support from the respondents. Of the respondents who were asked about a “treaty ally,” 80 percent said they would favor the United States supporting counterparts that fight against adversaries in the Middle East. When asked about a “non-treaty ally,” support dropped to 66 percent.

When Allies Don’t Matter

In a second experiment, we examined whether the respondents would prioritize America’s relationships with its treaty allies. So we first randomly presented them with one of four scenarios. The baseline group received the following question: “There have been discussions in the United States about supporting foreign actors to advance U.S. security interests abroad. Do you favor or oppose the United States pursuing such initiatives?”

A second scenario included the following note: “Some treaty allies, however, are critical of these initiatives.” We expected to find decreased support for the proposed action if some treaty allies objected to it. But there were no statistical differences between the scenarios that included the note about treaty allies being critical of the initiatives and those that did not, regardless of how we characterized the foreign actor. In other words, the position of the treaty allies did not matter for our respondents once they were told that U.S. security interests abroad were on the line.

Putting the AUKUS Brouhaha in Perspective

To borrow a line from “Cool Hand Luke,” “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” It seems like there was indeed a breakdown in communication between the United States, Australia, and France about the submarine deal. While the optics of the situation could have been handled better, these data highlight the tradeoffs that policy experts make in real-life situations. Our research confirms the importance of treaty allies to U.S. foreign policy experts. It also shows that this support is conditional. National security interests remain the top priority for these foreign policy experts. Accordingly, they think treaty allies can be pushed aside to realize them.

The United States has made similar choices in the past. Under the Trump administration, the United States partnered with Kurdish armed groups in Syria to fight the Islamic State. The decision was made at the expense of Turkey, a longtime NATO ally, which has been waging its own fight against Kurdish militants in the region for decades. And when the United States announced its plans to withdraw from Syria in October 2019, many in Washington decried the decision, arguing that the United States was abandoning its “Syrian Kurdish allies.” This choice of words, of course, was hardly welcome in Ankara.

To be fair, Washington’s relations with Turkey have been in shambles for quite some time (the S-400s, anyone?). This makes it rather easy for the United States to prioritize virtually any other interest over preserving its alliance with Ankara. The relationship with France, however, rests not just on treaty obligations but also on shared goals and values. That is precisely why the AUKUS deal puts U.S. relations with France in a difficult spot.

But there is ample opportunity for the United States to do damage control. Just as the prioritization of national security interests drove London, Canberra, and Washington to each go its own way on the question of which submarines are operating in the Pacific, leaving Macron fuming in the Elysée, it will also continue to drive the foursome together on the bigger questions of what ends those submarines serve.

For one, Paris and Canberra have long collaborated on security issues in the Indo-Pacific, a region France sees as a priority area and at the “heart of a French vision for a stable multipolar order.” The many French territories scattered across that region make up the world’s second-largest exclusive economic zone and are home to 1.6 million French citizens. Even though French naval forces have recently stepped up their tempo of operations in the Indo-Pacific, France alone does not have the capabilities to ensure the security of such an extensive geographic area. Consequently, French strategy has focused on building security partnerships supporting various multilateral arrangements in the region.

Despite the blow to French pride, both the United States and Australia therefore remain critical partners for France in the Indo-Pacific. Shared national security interests make that cooperation essential for all parties, even if the next few rounds of meetings may be less collegial than in the past.



Dina Smeltz is senior fellow for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and previously worked for fifteen years conducting surveys abroad for the U.S. State Department. She tweets @RoguePollster.

Sibel Oktay is associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield and nonresident senior fellow of public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She is the author of Governing Abroad: Coalition Politics and Foreign Policy in Europe (University of Michigan Press). She tweets @SibelOktay.

Paul Poast is associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago and nonresident fellow of foreign policy and public opinion at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. His most recent book is Arguing About Alliances: The Art of Agreement in Military-Pact Negotiations (Cornell University Press). He tweets @ProfPaulPoast.

Craig Kafura is assistant director for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a 2021 US-Australia Next Generation Fellow with the Pacific Forum. He tweets @ckafura.

Image by Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street