Recalling ambassadors from one’s allies is a special kind of diplomatic fireworks. Following the announcement of the new AUKUS defence alliance with Britain, France did just that to the US and Australia.
There are three reasons for the French to be furious. First, America’s new defence alliance has torpedoed the multibillion-dollar submarine deal between France and Australia. Second, the French side had received no prior sign that such an alliance was on the cards. Third, the new alliance raises questions about NATO’s future and America’s commitment to Europe.
In the short term, the first two points are the most painful for France. Losing a flagship contract for one’s defence industry is painful. It is humiliating to lose it without warning at the hands of one’s supposed friends.
But it is the third point which will cause France, and much of continental Europe, the biggest headache. The strategic ramifications for Europe are immense.
Had the AUKUS agreement occurred against the backdrop of a well-ordered European defence architecture, it would have largely been a matter of industrial policy. However, nothing in Europe’s security policy is well-ordered.
Following four turbulent years under Donald Trump, European leaders yearned for a return to transatlantic stability. They hoped that with Joe Biden as President, US foreign policy would return to a more collaborative stance on Europe.
Though understandable, that wish was somewhat naïve. The estrangement between America and Europe had started long before Trump. In 2002/03, Jacques Chirac had threatened a UN Security Council veto against George W. Bush’s Iraq war. In 2011, Barack Obama started America’s pivot to the Pacific and boosted the US troop deployment to Darwin.
All the while, successive US Presidents since George W. Bush kept reminding European NATO members to increase their defence spending – in decreasingly diplomatic language.
Transatlantic relations have not been at their best for at least two decades. The almost simultaneous end of the old Cold War and the rise of China shifted America’s focus to the Pacific. Meanwhile, the Europeans struggled to fill the security gap the Americans left behind.
Brexit complicated matters further. Though the European Union has a Common Security and Defence Policy, it is not a powerful player in defence matters. Still, when Britain left, the EU lost a Security Council member and a nuclear power – leaving France as the only EU member with these attributes.
In security questions, France is the only EU member playing in Britain’s league. Its colonial history and overseas territory give it a global perspective. With its Pacific territories, France is also acutely aware of the strategic implications of China’s rise in a way that, say, Germany or Italy are not.
With its Australian submarines deal, France had underlined its preparedness to play a global security role. It did so with its full weight as a member of NATO, the EU, the UN Security Council and the informal club of nations possessing nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers.
The nonchalance with which America and Australia brushed aside Paris’ global ambitions is a blow to French self-esteem. But it also weakens the perceived strength of Western Europe’s most important military power.
Timing could not have been worse. It had long been obvious that the West’s engagement in Afghanistan was unwinnable. But the haphazard way Western troops withdrew from the country amplified the calamity.
Across European capitals, there was consternation on how little the US coordinated with other countries in their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not least, it was this lack of cooperation that resulted in the dreadful images at Kabul Airport. And it gave the impression that the US was only concerned with itself, neglecting the countries alongside which it had fought for two decades.
In response to September 11, 2001, the Afghanistan war was the first time NATO used Article V. That article holds that an armed attack against one or more members “shall be considered an attack against them all” and entreats allies to take “such actions” as they deem necessary. So, with the US having enjoyed NATO’s solidarity in this way, its hasty withdrawal without consultation was especially galling for the Europeans.
A similar unilateralism resurfaced in the AUKUS deal. Once again, Washington showed little regard for European sensitivities. Instead, it just proceeded with what was in its best interest. It left France, supposedly America’s oldest friend, out in the cold.
Timing was bad for European political reasons, too. As Germany is about to go to the polls, Angela Merkel will retire from politics. Over her 16 years as chancellor, Merkel had become the de facto leader of Europe.
With Merkel’s imminent departure, French President Emmanuel Macron aims to take over this imaginary position. He does so at a time when a left-wing Government in Berlin looks like a plausible election outcome. Such a coalition might even include ‘The Left’ – a party that previously vowed to disestablish NATO and views the EU with suspicion.
Macron will also be thinking about matters more important to him than the German election. That is because he is preparing for his re-election campaign early next year.
The French President had intended to enter the election as Europe’s new political leader. Instead, he must now contend with the burden of being the President outsmarted on the international stage by the likes of Scott Morrison, Joe Biden, and Boris Johnson. That hurts.
With all that in mind, is it any wonder that Macron could not control his fury and recalled his ambassadors from Washington and Canberra?
From New Zealand’s perspective, the AUKUS alliance is good news for our region since it strengthens Australia’s security standing. But from Europe’s perspective, it does the opposite. It weakens NATO, estranges France from both Britain and the US, and has led to more pan-European consternation about US unilateralism.
If there is any good to come out of it, it will be another wake-up call to European nations to organise their own security — practically independently of Washington.
But who should lead this European security revival now? A new, inexperienced German chancellor leading a pacifist coalition? A weakened French President? Or the security non-entity that is the European Union?
For Europe, AUKUS feels like the security outcome of a bull’s run through a China shop. Only China will be happy about the weakening of Europe – and Europe’s new divisions – that AUKUS has created.