U.S. Spat With France Shows Challenge of Keeping Allies Unified

U.S. Spat With France Shows Challenge of Keeping Allies Unified

Diplomatic dust-up over security pact among the U.S., Australia and the U.K. comes as Biden administration struggles to maintain unity among its closest friends

France stepped up its opposition to a security agreement the U.S. crafted with Australia and the U.K., criticizing the Biden administration’s failure to keep its allies apprised of sweeping foreign policy initiatives after the pact led to the loss of a lucrative French submarine deal.

On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian discussed “the strategic consequences of the current crisis” with its ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia who were recalled for consultations. French President Emmanuel Macron is also expected to speak in the coming days with President Biden, officials from both countries say, in a sign of the depth of France’s frustration over the security pact. Mr. Le Drian likened French anger over the security pact to the blowback from American allies over the Biden administration’s abrupt and messy withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“They are reversing on a certain number of engagements at the global level. And there is a real link between Afghanistan and what is happening with the Australia agreement,” Mr. Le Drian said Saturday of the U.S. “Except that in a real alliance, we talk to each other. We don’t hide…we respect each other. We respect each other’s sovereignty. That wasn’t the case and that’s why there is a crisis.”

As the U.S. bolsters its foreign policy to counter China, President Biden has promised a collective campaign with a constellation of like-minded democratic allies. But the diplomatic rupture with France over the new security pact shows the administration is struggling to maintain that unity even among its closest friends.

Although there was broad support for an allied withdrawal from Afghanistan—and the new security pact brings two longtime allies, the U.K. and Australia, even closer to the U.S.—some European officials worry the U.S. is acting precipitously and not keeping them informed.

Josep Borrell, the European Union policy chief, last week expressed “regret” that the bloc had been excluded from the talks for the so-called AUKUS partnership, but cautioned against reading too much into the spat with France. Still, there appears to be little appetite outside France for pursing the dispute with the U.S., which is seen as crucial to European priorities such as fighting climate change and deterring Russian aggression.

“Don’t put into question our relationship with the United States that has been improving a lot with the new administration,” the senior diplomat said.

U.S. officials say the diplomatic fallout was the predictable consequence of a rapid and necessary foreign policy pivot toward China and the need to exit Afghanistan quickly. They dispute that key allies were left out at key moments, and they are confident the rift with the French will soon heal.

“We believe in the durability of our alliances, including with France,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “We look forward to working with our European partners on the biggest challenges the global community faces—including the continued threat of Covid and the climate crisis.”

Amid the French frustration with the nuclear pact, Mr. Biden is now expected to call French President Emmanuel Macron in the coming days.

China has maintained its staunch opposition to U.S. efforts to pull together a broader security alliance, warning it won’t ease tensions in the Pacific. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday that the countries involved should “abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception,” adding, “Otherwise, they will only end up shooting themselves in the foot.”

Whether the U.S. actions create lasting problems will be put to the test soon enough. The United Nations General Assembly convenes in New York this week. Separately, Mr. Biden will host his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan at the White House on Friday. Mr. Macron isn’t expected to attend, sending Mr. Le Drian instead.

But the diplomatic dust-up with France underlines the mounting risks for the president. Despite courting many of America’s traditional allies more assiduously than President Trump did, he has managed to bruise vital foreign relationships and, in the case of France, expose sharp differences in just how to confront China.

“We see the rise of an Indo-Pacific strategy launched by the United States that is militarily confrontational. That is not our position,” said Mr. Le Drian. “We don’t believe in the logic of systematic military confrontation even if sometimes we must use military means.”

Among the features of the new security pact that angered France is the development of the nuclear submarine capability for Australia. Paris on Friday recalled for consultations its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra—a protest that reflected its fury over allegations that it was blindsided by the new diplomatic partnership and submarine deal.

U.S. officials say they didn’t begin talks with Australia on the submarine technology until after Canberra had reached its own decision to terminate the contract with France.

The Australian government had embarked on an overhaul of its military amid concerns about China’s rising influence, but it had grown concerned that the French-designed submarines wouldn’t be fit for the purpose given a worsening security situation in the Indo-Pacific region.

Early in 2020, when Australia began looking at alternative submarine technology, diplomatic relations with China had deteriorated rapidly after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

After learning of Australian concerns about the project, Mr. Le Drian asked Marise Payne, his Australian counterpart, on a call June 23 whether they wanted nuclear-powered rather than diesel submarines. France had never built a nuclear-powered submarine for another country, but officials considered it a possibility given that the two countries were embarking on a security partnership that would supposedly last for decades.

Australian officials didn’t respond to the question, French officials said.

Days before French and Australian foreign and defense ministers publicly reaffirmed the importance of a $38.6 billion conventional submarine program in a meeting on Aug. 30, an Australian naval official wrapped up a trip to Washington discussing the secret security submarine program.

The British also understood that the Australians wanted better equipment because of their defense needs more widely, not just China. The British saw the AUKUS partnership as a way to pool wider military resources to try to stay ahead of the Chinese in the technology arms race.

After lower-level work continued on the submarine project over the summer, French officials saw press reports last week from Australia that Mr. Morrison was moving to cancel the contract and buy U.S.-made submarines instead. Mr. Le Drian and other French officials reached out to their U.S. counterparts but got no immediate response.

A White House official said that the deal was discussed in June among the leaders of the three countries at the G-7, stressing that this came about because the Australians were interested in nuclear-powered submarines as tensions rose with China.

Later, Mr. Macron expressed concern to the Australian prime minister at the potential new partnership, but didn’t fully recognize that the French government could lose the submarine deal, according to Western officials. “The French did not see what was being put down,” said one Western official. “They missed it.”

Mr. Morrison had attempted to speak by phone with Mr. Macron last week, but the French president was unavailable. On Wednesday morning, Mr. Morrison sent a letter to Mr. Macron confirming the cancellation of the contract. The French president received it on his way to Château de Fontainebleau south of Paris for lunch with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

It was just hours before Messrs. Biden, Morrison and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the new security pact.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke at length with French Ambassador Philippe Étienne after the AUKUS announcement, and the U.S. subsequently has had positive conversations with French officials at various levels, according to the State Department official.

The White House official said that the Biden administration anticipated there could be a strong reaction from the French government, but ultimately had to make a decision based on the interests of the U.S. and the Indo-Pacific region and Mr. Biden felt this was the right step.

—Gordon Lubold, Catherine Lucey and Jonathan Cheng contributed to this article.

By Courtney McBride, Matthew Dalton and David Winning

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