“Un coup de Trafalgar!” shouted the French elite last week at news of Australia’s decision to withdraw from a $66 billion contract to buy 12 French diesel-electric submarines and replace that deal with a new agreement to acquire at least eight American nuclear-powered submarines outfitted with British technology.
President Biden announced the deal as the cornerstone of a new tripartite alliance, combining Australia with the United Kingdom and United States (under the working acronym "AUKUS") to counter Chinese expansion in the Pacific, an alignment overlapping the extant "Five Eyes" intelligence sharing agreement, which includes those three countries as well as Canada and New Zealand.
The French are irate.
A planned Washington embassy gala to commemorate the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes, where France’s navy prevented the British from breaching the blockade of Lord Cornwallis’s army besieged at Yorktown, was immediately cancelled.
In addition to their embarrassed reference to Trafalgar, the battle ending Napoleonic naval power in 1805, French political leaders have denounced the current crisis as a "stab in the back," "unacceptable behavior between allies and partners," and, simply, "deviousness."
They have compared its surprise announcement to what they see as the worst excesses of the Trump administration’s diplomacy.
French President Emmanuel Macron angrily recalled France’s ambassadors to Washington and Canberra, while leaving its ambassador in London to spite the UK by implying that the British role in the new deal is so small that it lies beneath the Élysée’s notice.
French anger is understandable.
The inescapable interpretation is that France, and by broader implication a European Union that no longer includes the UK, is strategically and militarily less important in the face of a still powerful America committed to a "Pivot to Asia" and a revitalized "Global Britain" drawing closer to the United States.
Intolerable to Old Europe’s sensibilities, this fundamentally imperils the project of an idealized but deeply troubled "ever closer union" whose proponents envision it as one of several powers in a multipolar world that they hope might operate somewhat like post-Napoleonic 19th century Europe.
Losing the submarine deal at what appears to have been only a few hours’ notice obviously ground salt into the wound.
Biden’s announcement of the new "AUKUS" alliance was characteristically clumsy — he appeared to forget Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s name and stumblingly referred to him as "the man Down Under" and "pal" while announcing a major military alliance with his country.
As was the case in last month’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, key allies were not consulted in advance, and the world was astonished by an unwitting coup de théâtre that made Trumpian diplomacy seem staid.
By announcing the new alliance, Biden lent unwarranted credence to angry French accusations that the affair resulted from an American betrayal, even though Australia pulled out of the deal at its own initiative.
From the Anglo-American-Australian perspective, however, the military logic is unimpeachable.
Nuclear submarines have longer ranges, can remain submerged for greater amounts of time, and operate more quietly than diesel vessels.
Many specialists have suggested that the French contract was late and overbudget, and that the diesel submarines would have been obsolete before they entered operational service.
In the long run, having the right hardware to contain China easily trumps (pun intended) the legal and financial consequences of breaking a contract or creating a diplomatic incident.
Beijing has implicitly acknowledged this reasoning by decrying Australia’s prospective nuclear submarine force as a frightful escalation of tension.
Its foreign affairs spokesman has called it an "extremely irresponsible" move that "has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts."
What the Chinese almost certainly mean is that they have no effective way to counter the nuclear vessels but could have dealt with the inferior diesel-electric submarines, to which they registered no objection.
France has ignored the most "Anglo-Saxon" point — that it would not be in this predicament had it marketed and sold better submarines to Australia.
The subtler point is that this latest debacle undermines France’s global strategy, which is to triangulate between Washington and Beijing.
It is a doomed effort.
There is no indication that China — or its closest strategic partners Russia and Iran — shares any values prevailing in the West or has any reason to moderate its conduct to balance its interests to guarantee world peace.
There is, however, every indication that Beijing and its allies benefit from and seek to undermine Western unity while advancing their own aggrandizement at the expense of Western values and interests.
In a zero-sum world, French and broader European elites will have to decide whether they want to cultivate a fleeting but powerfully nostalgic sense of grandeur or resist an aggressive power that seeks to disrupt, divide, rule, and perhaps ultimately destroy them.
Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Georgetown University. Read more — Here.
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