President Joe Biden told French President Emmanuel Macron that France was an important friend and said the US was “clumsy” in the way the submarine deal with Australia that led to Canberra bailing on an agreement with France was handled. I, for one, breathed a sigh of relief.
Pouilly Fuisse, a white wine from the French region of Burgandy was one of the first wines I ever drank. I am no oenophile, but after decades of wine drinking it has remained one of my favorites. The thought, therefore, of a possible trade war with France as a result of the submarine deal was scary. As to the thought of America having offended French sensibilities, I could have lived with that.
In September Australia backed out of a $66 billion contract with the French to buy twelve new diesel-electric submarines. Instead, it announced plans to buy nuclear powered submarines from the United States, gaining access to technology until this time closely held by the United States and the United Kingdom. Outraged, France temporarily recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia.
It is anybody’s guess what most offended the French. It could simply be the loss of revenue for its defense industry, where $66 billion means a lot more than it does in the United States. There is also a sense of betrayal felt in Paris, a city I have always enjoyed. Critics of the Biden administration quickly dug out the old chestnut about France being America’s first and dearest friend. First yes. Dearest, I’m not so sure.
Yes, Franch support during the American Revolutionary War was critical. France shipped supplies to the Thirteen Colonies in 1775 and signed a Treaty of Alliance in 1778, which led to money, materiel and troops being sent to the United States. Viva Le Marquis de Lafayette!
But this should not give the French a permanent hold on America’s guilt complex. Our Revolutionary War debt has been paid back many times over. One need only look over the nearly ten thousand graves at the American cemetery near Normandy, France to realize that. And the French assistance during the Revolutionary War benefited France in its perpetual competition with the British as much as it helped America. Remember the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The problem for modern day France is that it won’t accept a world where it is no longer a major player. Its empire days are long gone. In a world where America shoulders the responsibility of being the preeminent superpower of the west, first standing against the Soviet Union and now facing China, it needs allies more than friends.
France claims to be such, former French ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud complaining, “They have negotiated [behind] our back for weeks! We are allies. You don’t do that to an ally.”
But France has never been willing to play a supporting role, backstopping the United States. As far back at 1958, 15 years after the coalition led by the United States and Britain liberated Paris and went on to unconditionally defeat Nazi Germany, French General Charles de Gaulle reserved the right to withdraw from NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization created in post war years as a deterrent to the Soviet Union.
The current French government of Emmanuel Macron sees the French role today as a “balancing power” able to maintain an independent position between the United States and China. A weak Australia, struggling to maintain obsolete French built submarines fits right into that strategy. Macron had support from none other that Donald Trump, who favored an insular America, withdrawn from the world stage.
But this is not in the long term interest of Australia, or of the United States. Chinese expansion must be met with resistance by the other nations of Asia and Australia is in a position to play a major role. To protect Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Japan requires coordination and a firm will. A deployment of strategic forces by Australia in partnership with the United States and the United Kingdom can provide the backbone the nations closer to the Chinese mainland need. And every ship and every base they deploy is one less that America must supply.