The fallout from Australia’s cancellation of its submarine contract with France and the new trilateral Indo-Pacific security pact between Australia, the US and the UK continues. France has recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington (though significantly not from London) for ‘immediate consultations’; the well-worn diplomatic gesture of discontent. This is the first occasion ever in over two centuries of Franco-American friendship.
Last night in another outburst of petulance, the French embassy in Washington cancelled the gala to celebrate Franco-American friendship. The festivities were to mark the 240th anniversary of the crucial Battle of the Capes when the French navy defeated its British counterpart in defence of American independence.
Compared to the present it is a poignant historical example of how, to paraphrase Lord Palmerston, diplomatic and military alliances are never permanent, only interests. France, after all abandoned its western allies in 1966 when it withdrew at short notice from Nato’s integrated military command. Today at the core of all this turmoil is the rising power of China. It is a historical truism that rising powers force diplomatic and military realignments.
History is replete with examples of states that underestimated the capacity of the international system to coalesce or realign rapidly in the face of rising and threatening powers. Prussian victory over the French in 1871 created a powerful Germany, whose rise and rise inevitably caused the international system to adjust by diplomatic and military realignments.
Sometimes this occurred slowly (the 1892 Franco-Russian alliance and the 1904 Entente Cordiale) sometimes brutally (the 1939 Nazi Soviet pact and the June 1941 Anglo-Soviet agreement). Then expediency trumped ideology. Now it trumps friendship. This time France is the loser. The historically attuned Macron of all people should now put this snap diplomatic embarrassment behind him and work constructively with Aukus. But the new architecture of the Indo-Pacific will not be easy to negotiate.
What the three Anglosphere states in the Aukus pact have put together is a loose, flexible and nimble arrangement for managing Indo-Pacific security directly. This is something that is second nature to states of a culture that General de Gaulle always referred to as ‘Anglo-Saxon’. It is just the kind of arrangement that is anathema to the formal, rational and legalistic method of the French and their cultural offshoot the EU, whose modus operandi was best demonstrated by the glacial formalism applied to the Brexit negotiations.
This clash of cultures – or cultures at cross purposes – was demonstrated prior to the First World War, when following the 1904 informal Entente Cordiale France was desperate for a formal binding written commitment from London to side with her in the event of a German attack. Britain would only agree to wait and see. This was a problem France also experienced in the interwar years. Then to cap it all, Aukus is a club within another very exclusive culturally defined Anglosphere club that has existed since the Second World War and that has never had France as a member, the ‘Five Eyes’ (with New Zealand and Canada).
Aukus members probably wanted France in the pact. Diplomatically and militarily she has much to offer in terms of naval projection, nuclear submarines and weapons, intelligence and physical presence by dint of her overseas territories in the south Pacific. But wishing to react rapidly, they were probably anxious about her cultural proclivity to define every term, role and eventuality. The crucial problem for France is that by her own admission the Australian deal wasn’t merely about submarines. It was the keystone in a regional security edifice carefully pieced together that will now have to be remodelled completely, were that possible. This is the source of their disappointment and public outrage.
The second problem for Paris is that Aukus is not just a coalition of three. It will be the nexus of a much broader web drawing in other informal regional groupings with varied objectives from security to trade, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, of US, Japan, India and Australia, or the 12 nation Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement which includes the US (albeit withdrawn under Trump), Australia, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and a pending UK membership.
France could now find herself outside these concentric circles. Her only full access would be by belated invitation to the sanctum sanctorum of Aukus. But as a late joiner she might be required to be amenable on other matters, for instance smoothing the way for an adjustment of the Northern Ireland Protocol (see my recent Coffee House piece). Heaven forfend that French membership – other than generating the unfortunate acronym of Faukus – be viewed as the EU’s Trojan Horse similar to General de Gaulle viewing Britain as America’s Trojan Horse on London’s application to join the Common Market.
What Macron does next is therefore key. With the presidential election campaign unofficially underway and France about to take up the presidency of the EU council for six months, he is certain to make grandiloquent statements about France and Europe’s only salvation lying in European ‘strategic autonomy’ from the US and Nato. But Macron knows in his heart of hearts, like his French predecessors, that this has been on the cards since the French inspired – and French scuppered – European Defence Community of 1954 and that it will go nowhere during his mandate.
What's more, an EU defence and security role in the Indo-Pacific will go no further than gesture politics, as only France has the capability to deploy in the area. Macron will have to swallow his pride and go with Aukus. The fact that the French Ambassador in London was not recalled suggests that he knows how to go about that.