The Oldest Friend

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.

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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.

Strategic Autonomy?

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.

Conclusion

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.

Subs Down Under?

On September 15, the United States and the United Kingdom announced a plan to share highly sensitive submarine technology with Australia. U.S. President Joe Biden, along with his British and Australian counterparts, unveiled the new defense alliance, known as AUKUS. As the first step, the United States and United Kingdom are going to bolster Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines, a fleet of submarines that are faster, more capable, harder to detect, and potentially more lethal than conventional-powered ones.

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The alliance announcement is largely seen as part of President Biden’s larger pivot to the Asia-Pacific region and appears to be geared toward countering China’s rise, though the announcement did not specifically name China. President Biden’s recent decision to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia provides U.S. allies with valuable insight into the Biden administration’s approach to the United States’ alliance structure.

Maybe the Special Relationship is…Special?

The United States and the United Kingdom have long enjoyed a special relationship, dating back to World War II summarized by a phrase coined by former Prime Minister Winston Churchill 1946. Since then, the two countries have cooperated closely on security, economic, cultural, intelligence, and diplomatic matters. In particular, U.S. and British militaries maintain high levels of respect for one another and cooperate closely. In fact, the United Kingdom is the only country with which the United States shares such sensitive nuclear information, signifying an extremely high level of trust.

This new alliance between the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia only further deepens the U.S.-U.K. relationship. In recent years, there has been discussion on whether the special relationship has more meaning for the British than the Americans. However, President Biden, through the recent announcement, illustrates the importance the relationship to his administration and his foreign policy efforts.  

Can We Make It Up to You?

While the United States and Australia also maintain long-standing military and diplomatic relations, relations between the two countries proved a bit frosty during the first several months of the Biden administration. The Biden administration, in the eyes of many allies including Australia, really dropped the ball by not communicating better about U.S. plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan, resulting in a cooling in the relationship.

The Biden administration’s inclusion of Australia on the announcement of this new alliance and the sharing of nearly sacred nuclear submarine technology serves several purposes for the Biden administration. For one, the new alliance bolsters the United States’ relationship with Australia. Moreover, the announcement of such an alliance with one of its closest allies in Asia further supports the Biden administration’s pivot to Asia and emphasis on countering China. Above all, however, this decision underscores the importance of the U.S.-Australian relationship in the Biden administration’s foreign policy efforts.

Forget About It, Europe!

Unlike the excitement the announcement caused in the United Kingdom as well as the surprise in Australia, the announcement raised France’s ire to a level not seen since 2003 over the U.S.-French disagreement over the Iraq war. This even led France to recall the country’s ambassadors from the United States and Australia. France’s Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France” as deplorable. “This is not done between allies,” he further lamented. One reason for France’s reaction is because, until recently, France was pursuing a similar agreement with Australia. While the deal included less sophisticated technology for Australian submarines and that deal ultimately collapsed, France still feels slighted.

Another reason why this angered the French is because the United Kingdom is the United States’ partner on this deal, not France. This logic involves an age-old insecurity in which France has long been suspicious of an “Anglophone cabal pursuing its own strategic interests” to France’s detriment. There is some speculation that this decision could damage U.S.-French relations. There are also questions on whether announcement is a larger indication of the Biden administration’s view of the United States’ European allies. Much to France’s chagrin, however, this deal really had nothing to do with France or Europe; the announcement of a new alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia has other purposes: further deepening its relationships with the United Kingdom and Australia and, the Biden administration’s primary focus, countering China.

Conclusion

On September 15, the United States, with its British and Australian allies, announced that the United States and the United Kingdom would share nuclear submarine technology with Australia. This decision provides important insight into how the Biden administration views America’s alliance structure. Beyond that, the deal seeks to deepen the U.S. relationship with both the United Kingdom and Australia and as a part of the Biden administration’s efforts to pivot to Asia and counter the rise of China. It does not, however, indicate any changes in the Biden administration’s policy toward or affinity for America’s European allies, particularly France.

Mr. Blinken Goes to Europe, Part Deux

In my recent post, What About Us?, I argued that, on his trip to Europe in June, it would behoove President Biden to meet individually with both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in their respective countries as he did with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson before the G-7 summit in Carbis Bay, England. These in-person meetings in France and Germany would have staved off any unnecessary strains in the relationships over issues spilling over from the Trump administration.

Strengthening the Transatlantic Bond – A Conversation between NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Instead, the next week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, after attending the summits alongside Mr. Biden, traveled back to Europe to meet bilaterally with the leaders and foreign ministers of Germany and France in Berlin and Paris highlight the importance of both relationships. In addition to meeting the German and French leaders, Secretary Blinken met with Italian leaders in Rome to “underscore the U.S.-Italy partnership’s important role in addressing key global priorities.” The purpose of Mr. Blinken’s post-Biden trip to Europe was to quell any strains in the relationship that Mr. Biden was unable to address during his time in Europe last month.

The question remains, did Secretary Blinken’s trip work?

Germany

Secretary Blinken’s first stop on his European trip was Berlin. During his time in Berlin, he met with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Chancellor Angela Merkel. He visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, noting that Germany and the United States were working together to counter antisemitism and Holocaust denial. While in Berlin, Mr. Blinken also attended a conference hosted by Germany and the United Nations focused on supporting Libya’s transition to a stable, permanent government.

Secretary Blinken’s visit to Berlin was not all work. He and Foreign Minister Maas grabbed a beer at a Berlin beer garden where Mr. Maas could hardly contain his excitement about his counterpart, noting how happy he was that the United States and Germany were on the same page again. “It’s more fun,” he added. Chancellor Merkel was equally complimentary and equally relieved, stating that “We are delighted that the American states, in order to quote the American President Joe Biden, are back again on the international, multilateral scene.” It was clear that Secretary Blinken was just as thrilled as the Germans to be in Berlin, observing that the United States has no better friend in the world than Germany. It is safe to say that, despite some lingering policy differences, Mr. Blinken’s top in Berlin was a success.

France

Secretary Blinken received a very friendly welcome in Paris where he met with Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian and President Emmanuel Macron where they discussed the tougher issues facing the U.S. and its European allies, including the Iranian nuclear deal, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and China. “My dear Tony, I’m really very happy to welcome you to Paris,” Foreign Minister Le Drian rejoiced.

Secretary Le Drian was not shy about celebrating the end of the turbulent years of the Trump administration, expressing his elation that the United States is back: “It is  excellent news for all of us that America is back. It is a comeback to the values that we share, it is a comeback to the multilateralism that we built together and it is our responsibility to continue with it intensively. This is what France and the Europeans had to fight for alone for four very long years.” Secretary Blinken returned the sentiment, affirming that the United States had no closer friend in the world than its oldest ally, similar to the statement he made while in Berlin about Germany. Much like his stop in Berlin, French officials were excited and relieved to welcome the American secretary of state, showing that the trip was certainly a success.

Italy

After his stops in Berlin and Paris, Secretary Blinken then traveled to Rome where he met with Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and where he was greeted in a similar manner as in Germany and France. He and Minister Di Maio co-chaired a meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, with the aim of discussing the maintenance of pressure on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Then, he attended another meeting focused on Syria, with a focus of bringing an end to the country’s decades-long civil war. Mr. Blinken also visited the Vatican where he met with Pope Francis.

While Secretary Blinken’s stop in Rome was packed full of events, it also went a long way to reaffirming the U.S.-Italian relationship. In fact, Minister Di Miao paid the United States the ultimate compliment, in the eyes of the Biden administration, stating that Italy’s relationship with the United States vastly outweighed the Italian relationship with China. The United States has expressed concern over Italy’s ties to China, specifically after Italy, under the previous government, signed up for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which the U.S. views as problematic. “We are a strong trade partner with China, we have a historic relationship,” he admitted. “But it is absolutely not comparable, and it does not interfere with, the alliance of values we have with the United States.” In short, one could argue that Secretary Blinken’s stop in Italy reaped results that far outweighed what the Biden administration anticipated.

Conclusion

Secretary Blinken traveled to Europe in the wake of President Biden’s largely successful trip to Europe. During his visits to Berlin, Paris, and Rome to further Biden administration efforts to revitalize U.S. relations with its European allies, leaders in France, Germany, and Italy treated Secretary Blinken like a “rock star.” After the frustrating and destructive Trump years, European leaders received Mr. Blinken with relief and even joy, marking his recent trip as a rounding success.

What About Us?

My recent post, Backgrounder: Mr. Biden Goes to Europe, summarized President Joe Biden’s trip to Europe in June where he visited the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Switzerland to attend summits with the United States’ G-7, NATO, and EU allies. He also met individually the leaders of the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Russia.

Specifically, before the G-7 summit, President Biden met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Carbis Bay, England in an effort to reaffirm the special relationship. During this meeting, Mr. Biden and Mr. Johnson signed an updated Atlantic Charter and Mr. Biden was not shy in raising his concerns about Brexit negotiations and the hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. 

What became evident, though, is that President Biden did not give two key Europeans the same attention he gave Mr. Johnson and the United Kingdom.  Germany and France are perhaps the most important U.S. allies in Europe, outside of the United Kingdom, and relations between the United States and these two countries were damaged during the Trump administration. In an effort to advance one of his central foreign policy objectives – repairing the United States’ relationships with its allies, particularly in Europe – Mr. Biden should have taken the time to meet with Chancellor Merkel and President Macron in their respective capitals during his European trip to symbolize the importance of these relationships.

Germany

An individual, in-person meeting with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin during the European trip would have gone far in simmering one particularly tense issue. At the center of the U.S. – German relationship is the disagreement surrounding Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that will run from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany. President Biden and his team have denounced the project. U.S. officials on both sides of the aisle fear the pipeline will give “Russia too much power over European gas supplies.” Fundamental to this concern is the worry that Russia will exploit Europe’s energy needs as a means of getting its way in other foreign policy matters. Similarly, the United States is concerned that Russia will shut off gas entirely to Ukraine and Poland, starving the two countries of their own energy needs.

Ultimately, after Chancellor Merkel visited the White House in mid-July, the United States is no longer threatening to block the pipeline, deciding it was not worth risking its key alliance with Germany over a pipeline that is mostly finished. In short, Mr. Biden decided the United States’ relationship with Germany was more important. However, much of the unnecessary tension between the United States and Germany over the Nordstream 2 pipeline could have been headed off in an individual, in-person meeting with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin during his trip to Europe.

France

Similarly, an individual, in-person meeting with President Macron in Paris would have helped relieve any strain in the U.S. – French relationship. America’s European allies, particularly France and Germany, are relieved that President Biden is now in office, even if they are still a bit wary, and repairing damage to the transatlantic alliance caused by the Trump administration. But the damage was done. Europe began to doubt the United States’ commitment to the transatlantic alliance, and the continent is now looking to become less dependent on the United States in what it calls strategic autonomy.

The most vocal proponent of this autonomy has been Mr. Macron. This is an uncomfortable component in the relationship between France and the United States and represents a broader trepidation among European leaders about the continent’s, relationship with the United States. Mr. Biden has a lot to prove to the United States’ European allies, including France, and is on his way to mending some relationships that took a beating during the last administration. France is one of the key countries that President Biden has focused on in his efforts to repair alliances, and an individual, in person meeting in Paris during his European trip could have staved off some of the strain on such an important relationship.

Conclusion

While U.S. relations with its key European allies remain close and positive, France and Germany were both shocked by the poor treatment they received from the Trump administration. Mr. Biden came into office with a promise to revitalize America’s relationships with its closest allies, particularly in Europe. Still, certain issues have spilled over from the Trump administration and are still causing tension even now that Mr. Biden is in office. In light of the frustrations and anxieties among two of America’s closest allies in Europe, a meeting between President Biden and the leaders of France and Germany could have smoothed over any doubts about the United States’ commitment to the transatlantic alliance that may still exist.