The new trilateral security pact between the UK, US and Australia was supposed to deepen co-operation between three of the western world’s leading democracies. Instead, the pact, known as Aukus, has caused a major rift between them and France.
While Aukus is designed to improve collaboration between the three countries on intelligence-gathering and defence, at the heart of the deal lies an agreement to provide Australia with a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
Canberra says it needs the submarines to due to rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, and having nuclear-powered boats at its disposal will enable the Australian navy to conduct long-range patrols for extended periods of time.
But to sign the Aukus deal, Canberra had to tear up a long-standing £72.8 billion contract for France to build diesel-electric submarines. The resulting diplomatic rift led French President Emmanuel Macron to take the unprecedented step of withdrawing France’s ambassadors from the US and Australia.
Although Paris is also angry at Britain for its role in the agreement, France has allowed its ambassador in London to remain there, claiming that the UK is nothing more than a “vassal” of the US, and therefore of little consequence.
France’s furious response has clearly taken the administration of US President Joe Biden by surprise. Washington has responded by launching an intense diplomatic charm offensive, in a desperate attempt to repair relations with Paris.
Mr Biden has made much of his desire to promote closer co-operation among democratic countries to counter the growing influence exercised by rival powers, such as China and Russia, on the world stage. He has unveiled plans to convene a summit of democratic leaders later this year to take part in a virtual summit on December 9 and 10, where they will be asked to make commitments for a “year of action” to address the world’s ills.
A White House statement announcing the conference said: “The challenge of our time is to demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people and by addressing the greatest problems facing the wider world.”
The diplomatic fallout between Paris and Washington over the Aukus deal, therefore, has severely undermined Mr Biden’s attempts to engender a spirit of common purpose among western democracies.
The first step towards restoring relations was taken after Mr Biden had a telephone conversation with Mr Macron earlier in September, during which the American leader agreed to meet the French President later in October, when he flies to Rome for the G20 summit. The two leaders are also due to attend the major Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow in early November.
A statement issued following the call said the two leaders “agreed the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners”. Mr Macron also agreed to return the French ambassador to Washington, although no plans have been announced about returning the French envoy to Canberra.
In a further sign that Washington is keen to mend relations with Paris, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is to lead a high level delegation to France for talks aimed at healing the rift. But Mr Blinken’s insistence that France was well aware of the Aukus pact before it was announced will do little to assuage Mr Macron’s deep anger on the issue.
In an attempt to deflect criticism away from Washington, US officials appear to be seeking to blame Australia’s insensitive handling of the issue for causing the problem in the first place.
The White House has said it was Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s responsibility to inform France that he was ending the contract for French-made submarines. Mr Morrison has also come under fire from Malcolm Turnbull, his predecessor as Australian prime minister, who originally signed the French deal in 2016. Mr Turnbull accused the Australian leader of not acting in good faith, and claims he had “deliberately deceived” France over the scrapping of the deal.
For his part, Mr Morrison has countered that he had raised concerns about the contract with Mr Macron’s government to the effect that the French submarines would not be able to meet Australia’s future security needs.
The French government has certainly not been shy about expressing its extreme displeasure at the way the nuclear submarine deal was handled, with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian describing it as a “stab in the back” from Canberra and a strain on its friendly relationship with Washington.
French anger at British participation in the agreement resulted in Paris cancelling a planned summit between the British and French defence ministers, and Mr Macron has revived talk of creating a European defence force to rival the existing Nato alliance.
As the two leading military powers in Europe, France and Britain have a long history of close co-operation, most recently enshrined in the Lancaster House Treaties signed in 2010 between then British prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
But even though British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has sought to allay French concerns, telling France to “get a grip” and claiming the pact was “fundamentally a great step forward for global security”, Mr Macron has thrown his support behind a call by European President Ursula von der Leyen for the EU to create its own defence force.
The creation of a European defence force would certainly be a blow for Britain, whose prominent role in the Nato alliance helps to maintain its pre-eminent position in the transatlantic alliance.
Mr Biden therefore faces a difficult balancing act in trying to maintain relations with two European allies, Britain and France, while seeing off the threat to the transatlantic alliance a new EU defence force would pose, as it would completely undermine Nato’s effectiveness.