I’ve now read up a bit more on the particulars of the blow up between the US and France. It basically comports with my original understanding. Australia feels increasingly threatened by China. The Australians contracted with the French five years ago, in a significantly different and less threatening security environment. There were already significant delays and cost overruns with the French subs. But the key is that what the US could offer was demonstrably and critically better technology. A central attribute of attack submarines is that your adversary doesn’t know where they are. The French subs are louder. The Australians had good reason to believe they’d be obsolete on delivery.
To the Australians this must have seemed an open and shut case of critical national security interests against which the anger of the French was an unfortunate but inevitable and acceptable byproduct. A more capably armed Australia, meanwhile, fits neatly into what the Biden White House has made a central feature of its national security policy: countering Chinese ambitions to challenge or displace the US Navy as the dominant naval power in East Asia.
In other words, everyone’s interests are pretty clear cut. There are strong reasons for the Australia and the US to want this. There are obvious and understandable reasons for the French to be upset about it. A big part of that is that it’s a weapons deal worth tens of billions of dollars. But that alone doesn’t explain the intensity of the response which seems in part to lay bare France’s dated pretensions to be a global military power but more than that US priorities in the Pacific.
As I note above, the reasons why Australia and the US decided to do this seem straightforward. The question is why we appear to have blindsided the French and let their inevitable anger become a major blow up. Ironically, it seems a bit like what the establishment insiders have been wrongly saying about Afghanistan for the last six weeks: the right policy, poorly executed. But reading the latest reporting the US and Australia seemed to believe that if they didn’t act in secret the French and China would find out and work to sabotage the deal. So the US made the decision – quite simply – to act behind France’s back. Where we erred, if we did, is not realizing just how angry the French would get.
How did we miss that? Again, if we did? It seems clear the French-Australian deal was on the rocks. The French seem to have been in some denial about that. We seem to have expected they’d be upset but not terribly surprised. But the US and Australia seem to have been equally in denial on that front in the way people often are when they are needing to and avoiding breaking bad news. The US told the Australians it was on them. The Australians seem to have told the US that the French saw the writing on the wall.
Who knows who has the worst part of this miscommunication and interlocking pattern of denial? Big picture it’s beside the point. For decades the US saw its central security interests in Western Europe, NATO countering the USSR. The US conversation about ‘traditional allies’ still largely focuses on NATO. But here we were willing to act behind the back of a key – if often ambivalent – NATO ally and risk this kind of breach because we see our most important interests in Asia.
As a former imperial and cultural power France still has pretensions to being a global military power, even on the other side of the globe. The UK does too. That’s a key part of what Brexit was about. Look at the Tory discussions of Brexit in which Britain was set to reemerge in its rightful role as a muscular player on the world stage once it was out of under the thrall of the EU. Australia’s snub to the lie to some of these fantasies. The US willingness to participate in that snub did even more so – not so much the Asian military power fantasy as much as France being a central player in Europe and Europe being the center of everything.
This is what I was getting at yesterday about a crumbling firmament. We are still in many ways living through the crumbling or inertia of the security commitments of the Cold War. The US departure from Afghanistan bookends twenty years of intensive US military involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia. Whether that was a grand diversion and folly is a separate point. That was the central focus of US foreign policy for two decades. Departing the country where it started is a capstone to it.
To the best of my knowledge France has never recalled its ambassador from the US. Sure, it’s symbolic. But it’s big, almost shocking symbolism. The whole thing is silly at one level. But decaying certainties often break free for reasons that are contingent or even trivial in themselves. It is a broader part of a world that is unmoored and uncertain.