When President Joe Biden won the White House, he promised, with a facility of unceasing boredom, that diplomacy was back. “Diplomacy is back at the centre of our foreign policy,” he stated on February 4. “As I said in my inaugural address, we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s.”
The fact that such diplomacy had never gone away seemed to escape him. In the simpleton’s view of politics, his predecessor had abandoned the jaw jaw approach to international relations for muscular and mindless US unilateralism. Allies had been belittled, ignored and mocked. Strongmen had been feted, admired and praised. It was now incumbent upon the United States, urged Biden, that “American leadership” confront “this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.”
It would have been more accurate to say that President Donald Trump’s coarse, business board room model was simply too much of a shock for those familiarly comfortable with guile, deception and dissimulation. But Biden’s return to acceptable hypocrisy did not mask the “America First” note in his temper. Since then, that temper has seen a dramatic, ahead-of-schedule exit from Afghanistan, building on Trump’s undertakings to conclude open-ended wars and commitments. US allies began to wonder whether the Biden model was that different from Trump’s cruder original.
With the announcement on September 15 of the trilateral security pact AUKUS, an agreement between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia to deepen military ties in an effort to contain China, the “diplomacy is back” cart was soiled and upended. The European Union had not been consulted. A furious France only received a few hours’ notice that the agreement they had made through the Naval Group with Australia to construct the next generation of attack class submarines had been dissolved. Countries in the Indo-Pacific were also left in the dark.
France, in some ways even more than China, the primary target of AUKUS, is incandescent with rage. On Franceinfo radio, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was unsparing in his remarks. “This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do.” He confessed to feeling anger and bitterness. “This isn’t done between allies.”
As recently as July, Le Drian had visited Washington, where he pointedly stated that France was “an Indo-Pacific nation with territories that give [it] the world’s second-largest exclusive economic zone” with a permanent military presence of 8,500 personnel in the region. Paris, along with EU member states, was in the process of formulating a clear Indo-Pacific strategy. Efforts were being made in creating “strategic partnerships” with Japan, Australia and India. Regional organisations such as ASEAN were being brought into the fold. Any “transatlantic pivot toward the Indo-Pacific” had to be taken “together”.
At the end of August, Australia and France held their inaugural Foreign and Defence (2+2) Ministerial Consultations. No hint was given that something was brewing. As the joint statement outlined, “Ministers underscored the importance of the strong and enduring commitment of other partners, including the United States, and Indo-Pacific partners in upholding an open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific in accordance with international law.”
With notions of sham togetherness shaken, retaliation in the old diplomatic tradition has followed. President Emmanuel Macron has recalled the French ambassadors to the United States and Australia. Britain was rebuked somewhat differently, being spared the same harsh treatment; being underhanded was the very sort of thing Paris expected from their historical enemy. In Le Drian’s words, its conduct had been “opportunistic,” with London being little more than “the fifth wheel of the wagon”.
In a joint statement, Le Drian and French Minister for the Army Florence Parly emphasised that this new security arrangement had been arrived at to the “exclusion of a European ally and partner … at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.” The move signalled “a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret.”
Special words were reserved for Australia, a country now wooed by an unconvincing promise of eight nuclear-powered submarines that are only promised to enter service sometime in the 2040s. The decision was “contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation which prevailed between France and Australia, based on a relationship of political trust.” Le Drian, in a separate observation, weighed on the theme of infidelity, calling the decision, “A knife in the back.”
None of this takes away from the fact that the original Franco-Australian contract, reached in 2016, was an ill-thought out undertaking to build 12 conventional Barracuda class submarines in imitation of the nuclear powered Suffren design. It was vain, costly and promised obsolescence before viable performance. Then again, the French argument goes, the Australians wanted it.
The justifications for this episode of Anglophonic mischief have varied in their insolence and disingenuousness. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was all shine and floss in claiming that France remained “a vital partner” in ensuring security in the Indo-Pacific “and we want to find every opportunity to deepen our transatlantic cooperation” in the area. To a question suggesting that France had been stabbed in the back, Blinken mechanically repeated the vital importance of a “transatlantic” association.
Australia’s simply disposed Defence Minister Peter Dutton preferred fantasy by way of explanation, claiming that his government had been “upfront, open and honest … We can understand of course, the French are upset at the cancellation of a contract but in the end, our job is to act in our national interest.” Britain’s Defence Minister Ben Wallace was of like mind, promising that, “Nothing was done by sneaking behind anyone’s back.” But sneaking there was, and it was the Anglosphere, led by the United States, doing the sneaking.
AUKUS is less a trio than a hefty, bullying chief accompanied by a willing assistant and an enthusiastic supplicant. It is a declaration of hostile intent in a region of the world that promises to be the Europe of 1914. It has also encouraged the EU to formulate its own Indo-Pacific policy with haste and independence. “The regrettable decision which has just been announced on the FSP [Future Submarine Program] only reinforces the need to raise the issue of European strategic autonomy loud and clear,” observed Le Drian and Parley. Policy makers in Beijing will be struggling to stifle their amusement.
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