On September 17, France made a startling announcement. The French are recalling its ambassadors to both the United States for the first time after a recently announced deal in which the United States and United Kingdom would share nuclear submarine technology with Australia. France even cancelled a gala, celebrating France’s assistance in the United States’ battle for independence from the British at the French embassy in Washington, D.C. The French are truly angry, not simply making a dramatic show of political theater.
While the United States and France haven’t always had the easiest relationship, the United States has long heralded France as its oldest friend. As NATO allies with close economic ties, the relationship is traditionally built on the “shared commitment to the same values – democracy, human rights, the rule of law, security, and prosperity,” as the State Department announced in a recent press release. However, in the face of France’s ire, the United States does not seem to be taking France’s anger seriously. Despite the acknowledgement of only providing France with a few hours’ notice, the United States has largely played down what the French are calling as a crisis in U.S.-French relations. In the coming days, U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron will speak about the ordeal. While this is a good first step, the United States needs to work to reduce tensions with its oldest ally over the next few weeks.
A Different Kind of Ally
For one, France is a strong military ally, and it would do well for the United States to remember this fact. According to the Rand Corporation, France “currently possesses one of Western Europe’s most capable militaries…” France has been fighting Islamic militants in the former French colonies in the Sahel region of Africa. Operation Barkhane, which began in 2014, has included nearly 5,000 French soldiers being deployed across the region. The same day as the announcement about the sharing of nuclear submarine technology, President Macron announced that the French military killed the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, who was thought to be responsible for an attack that killed four American soldiers in Niger in 2017.
Additionally, France maintains a small contingent of troops fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and sent troops into Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led contingent shortly after the U.S. war there began, ending its military operations in 2014. Moreover, during an administration that claims to revere U.S. allies and partners and at a time when U.S. credibility is in question, the United States can use all the help, whether militarily or diplomatically, that it can find. For this reason, repairing the rift with France is in the United States’ national interest.
For some in Europe, in particular in France, the recent row is renewing calls more strategic autonomy – Europe’s military, economic, technologic, and political independence from the United States. “The need for more European defense has never been as much evident as today after the events in Afghanistan,” noted the European Union’s foreign policy chief. To France, the same can be said after what the French perceive as a “major betrayal by one of its closest allies.” This sentiment, of course, is nothing new as President Macron has been pushing this line for nearly three years. This belief is also widely shared across many countries in Europe, with some being more discreet in their phrasing. Europe, after recent events, may take serious steps toward providing for their own security, relying less on its American allies.
The United States, in repairing the rift with France, should support this venture. For one, it would show support for an increasingly popular sentiment across France; it would show a level of respect for France and the relationship that has been missing in recent years from American foreign policy. Besides, a more independent Europe would benefit the United States as well. Not only would the United States be able to patch the rift in the relationship with a key and longstanding ally, but the United States would also accomplish a goal that has transcended the last few American administrations: Europe contributing more to its own security. Having a more capable, independent, and equal partner in Europe would benefit not only the United States and strengthen the U.S. relationship with both France and with Europe as a whole.
France is mad. However, the United States seems to underestimate the gravity of the French exasperation. This rift has the potential to turn into a full-scale diplomatic row. France has one of the strongest and most capable militaries in Europe, and also conducts counterterrorism against Islamist militant groups across the Middle East and North Africa, a goal the French share with the United States. Additionally, recent events are pushing France to further consider pursuing a strategic autonomy policy, one that lessens French and European dependence on the United States for its security. The United States should support France’s pursuit of strategic autonomy, which would benefit the United States as well as the U.S-France relationship. The United States must do all it can to preserve its relationship with France.
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