Europe’s Response to the U.S.-UK-Australia Submarine Deal: What to Know

In Brief

Europe’s Response to the U.S.-UK-Australia Submarine Deal: What to Know

AUKUS, a deal for the United States and United Kingdom to provide Australia with submarines, has infuriated France at a time when transatlantic coordination to deal with China’s rise is crucial.

Why has France reacted so strongly to AUKUS, and how serious is the rift in the transatlantic relationship?

The rift is serious, as made clear by France’s decision to withdraw its ambassador to Washington and by the French foreign minister calling the deal a “stab in the back.” The two countries have just started to patch things up with a call between President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, and plans for the leaders to meet next month.

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French officials are angry that they were effectively left in the dark about the AUKUS deal, which scuttled their own contract to sell submarines to Australia. They contend, not without justification, that such a lack of transparency is inappropriate among close allies and represents a breach of trust. Paris is upset about the demise of its own submarine deal with Canberra, which was worth more than $60 billion; the cancellation of the contract will cost France jobs and revenue.

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The episode has tapped into France’s Gaullist sentiment, a political tradition that looks to a strong French state to resist subordination to other nations. (In 1966, President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) military structure to regain “the full exercise of her sovereignty.”) As President Emmanuel Macron positions himself to run for reelection next year, this Gaullist tradition could prompt him to react with particular pique to the AUKUS deal. And the fracas comes on the heels of NATO’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, which prompted many alliance members to complain about insufficient consultation between Washington and its partners.

Could it weaken NATO or accelerate European Union (EU) efforts to strengthen the bloc’s common defense policy?

While it is unlikely to pose any operational challenges for NATO, the fallout from the AUKUS deal is already fueling stronger calls for the EU to move toward what France calls “strategic autonomy”—a Europe that is a more capable geopolitical actor and thus less dependent on the United States for its security. The appeal of strategic autonomy grew during the presidency of Donald Trump, whose America First approach to foreign policy led many Europeans to question Washington’s reliability and its commitment to European security. President Joe Biden’s arrival in the Oval Office led to a quick repair of the transatlantic bond, but the bumpy exit from Afghanistan and the fallout from the AUKUS deal are bringing the debate over the EU’s defense aspirations back into focus.

Emmanual Macron and Joe Biden speak at the 2021 NATO summit
U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron speak at the June 2021 NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium. Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

For now, the debate is more theoretical than practical. Europe needs to acquire greater military capability and a firmer common security policy before it can achieve strategic autonomy. Also, most European members of NATO prefer a strong transatlantic link over a more independent EU. Mainstream thinking in Europe could be characterized as: A strong transatlantic security partnership if possible, strategic autonomy for Europe if necessary. For now, Europe would be wise to get on with the hard work of acquiring more military capability. Doing so is likely to strengthen transatlantic ties by enabling Europe to become a more capable partner to the United States.

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Does the diplomatic blowback undermine U.S. efforts to work with the EU on countering China?

The AUKUS deal is part of a broader U.S. effort to balance against growing Chinese power and ambition. Australia’s acquisition of highly capable submarines advances that effort. At the same time, the Biden administration has made clear that it wants to forge a united front of democracies to deal with China across the board—on security, trade, technology, and human rights. The AUKUS deal, even while getting more maritime capability in the hands of an ally, has produced a diplomatic setback to advancing transatlantic unity. It is one step forward, one step back.

Furthermore, especially in the aftermath of Brexit, striking a deal that involves the United Kingdom (UK) but not France or any other EU members has troubling optics. It makes sense to encourage London to deliver on its promises of a post-Brexit “Global Britain.” But might there have been a way to build a package that involved not just the UK, but also France and other EU members? The military and diplomatic elements of U.S. strategy toward China should be more fully integrated.

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What does this say about Washington’s communication with allies? Are there ways for Biden to mend relations or concessions he could make to France?

Communication with France was not what it should have been. Washington should seek to repair relations with Paris by looking for ways to bring France, and Europe more broadly, into its Indo-Pacific strategy. That could entail participation by France, other EU members, and the EU collectively in military, diplomatic, and trade initiatives regarding the Indo-Pacific.

The United States and its European allies might not see eye-to-eye on all aspects of policy toward China. But there is a great deal of commonality, and Washington should bend over backward to sustain the integrity of the transatlantic bond and to forge a united front of democracies to deal with the rise of China.

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