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France recalls US envoy after being left in dark on Australia sub deal
'We understand" French position and place "highest value" on US-French relationship, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
When President Biden on Wednesday (Sept. 15th ) announced a new U.S. security partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom (AUKUS), he presumably did not expect that by the end of the week, France would be recalling its ambassador as a result of being left in the dark on the initiative. At the centerpiece of the secretive AUKUS security deal is a plan for the United States to cooperate with Australia on the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, replacing a troubled 2016 French deal to provide Australia with twelve diesel-powered submarines.
“At the request of the President of the Republic, I am recalling to Paris without delay our ambassadors to the United States and to Australia for consultations,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement. “This exceptional decision is justified by the exceptional gravity of the announcements made on 15th September by Australia and the United States.”
The White House and State Department late Friday said they understood the French position and placed the highest value on the US French relationship.
“We have been in close contact with our French allies. We understand their position, and we are aware of their plans to recall Ambassador Etienne to Paris for consultations,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement this evening.
“France is a vital partner and our oldest ally, and we place the highest value on our relationship,” Price continued. “We hope to continue our discussion on this issue at the senior level in coming days.”
“We have been in close touch with our French partners on their decision to recall Amb. Etienne to Paris for consultations,” NSC spokesperson Emily Horne said this evening. “We understand their position and will continue to be engaged in the coming days to resolve our differences.”
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Thursday that essentially it was up to the Australians to explain why they decided to pursue a different submarine technology over the French contract.
“We value our relationship and our partnership with France on a variety of issues,” Psaki said at the White House press briefing Thursday (Sept. 16). “I would leave it, of course, to our Australian partners to describe why they sought this new technology and why they pursued this technology from the United States.”
But French officials have said that response is inadequate, and does not acknowledge the damage to the trust between Paris and Washington that U.S. actions and lack of consultation have caused.
“The American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region…shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret,” French Foreign Minister Le Drian and Defense Minister Florence Parly said in a joint statement Thursday.
Aside from a few fairly defensive public podium statements reiterating the value it places on its partnership with the French, the Biden administration has gone into something of a defensive crouch in failing to explain what happened in its policy process that opened a breach in one treaty alliance while creating another security partnership to address a rising China.
US officials, speaking privately, have indicated that the Australia/UK/US partnership policy was very closely held inside the Biden administration, and spearheaded by the Asia team working under NSC Asia coordinator Kurt Campbell.
“We should have talked to the French earlier,” one U.S. official, speaking not for attribution, said Thursday. “The Europe crowd got involved very late…and it shows.”
“The French are also playing this up for their own ends, keep in mind,” the US official continued. “They have been pushing the narrative that the US is an unreliable ally already, so this narrative suits them.”
“But obviously it could and should have been implemented differently,” the official said. “It’s a total own goal.”
Former US Ambassador to India and to the UN Tom Pickering said it was evident that the people leading this Indo-Pacific initiative in the US inter-agency did not adequately consider Biden’s central focus on rebuilding US alliances, or consult with those focused on Europe and the transatlantic alliance.
“It indicates a clear sense on the part of the people who put this together that they had somehow lost sight of the President’s clear interest in rebuilding the alliance relationships and doing it in a very strong way, and putting it in the center of American foreign policy, ” Pickering told me in an interview today.
“And it seemed to be quite unnecessary,” Pickering continued, saying the announcement was done in a needlessly “abrupt” way.
Thomas Wright, director of the Brookings Institution Center for the United States and Europe, wrote that it was his understanding the Australians initiated the overtures to the Biden administration after first approaching the British about acquiring nuclear-powered submarines to replace the French contract.
“Earlier this year, Australia approached the UK about switching to a nuclear-powered subs,” Wright wrote on Twitter. “The UK then approached the United States. The Biden administration asked the Australians to cancel the deal with France and then negotiate with them but the Australians did not want to go that route for reasons I can only guess at. Canberra believed France had gotten the message and wouldn’t be surprised. For this reason, the US underestimated the degree of French anger and assessed that it was not shared by the rest of the EU.”
The Biden administration is “still very committed to working with the EU and France in particular on China/Asia, but it is not clear that that will cut it,” Wright continued.
While the Biden administration may expect French anger will blow over, it should think long and hard about how to keep allies on board as Washington seeks to build out a global coalition to help compete with a rising China and counter Chinese aggression, wrote Rand analyst Mike Mazarr.
“The main issue is that the US position in Asia will be strongest if tied to a global coalition unwilling to accept PRC aggression/bullying,” Mazarr wrote on Twitter. “The trick will be to build the individual pieces of this edifice [without] shaking the foundations of the whole. Arguably we didn't do that here.”
“This episode may end up highlighting the very fine line that a post-primacy US needs to walk,” Mazarr continued. “Accumulating resentments are one thing when you're the hegemon, and people don't have anywhere else to go. Not sure the US can weather them so well today. We will see.”