The Ruckus over AUKUS

How the United States and its allies can move beyond the current crisis

Last week, President Biden and his British and Australian counterparts announced the “launch a new phase of trilateral security cooperation” between the United States, Great Britain, and Australia. Though this agreement (known as AUKUS in the awkward parlance of foreign policy) also entails deeper cooperation on cutting-edge defense technologies like quantum computing and artificial intelligence, its most prominent and controversial provision involves Australia’s acquisition of a new nuclear-powered submarine fleet with the help of the United States and Great Britain. As a result, Australia pulled the plug on a $40 billion contract with the French defense industry to build twelve diesel-powered submarines – enraging a French government apparently blindsided by the new trilateral defense deal.

In response to the agreement, Paris pulled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra though not London. The French government has indulged in unhelpful and incendiary rhetoric, characterizing the British government as an American “vassal” and characterizing the trilateral security pact as a “stab in the back.” Paris also appears intent on escalating matters, making the usual noises about French-led European “strategic autonomy” and trying to drag in the rest of the European Union into the dispute – to the point that France now demands the EU postpone the first meeting of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council slated for later this month in Pittsburgh.

It’s clear that the Biden administration could have handled this situation much better than it has; indeed, mishandling the execution of otherwise defensible foreign policy decisions appears like it’s becoming a pattern for the Biden team. The “relentless diplomacy” President Biden promised at yesterday’s UN General Assembly obviously needs some work.

But it’s equally clear that France has taken legitimate grievances over its now-defunct submarine deal to an absurd extreme. As a recent RAND Corporation report noted, Paris considers the maintenance of a viable domestic defense industry to be one of its core national security interests. The loss of the Australian submarine contract deals a heavy blow to that industry, and does so just seven months before the first round of France’s presidential election. From their wounded public rhetoric, moreover, it’s apparent that French officials consider their country’s exclusion from AUKUS to be an intolerable affront to France’s national pride.

These objections are all understandable on their own terms, but the French government’s theatrical reaction to AUKUS makes it more difficult for the Biden administration to begin discussions on how to repair matters and move forward.

Overall, though, this particular fracas arises from strategic confusion and frustration in both Europe and the United States. For their part, European nations lack a clear sense of their own strategic goals and methods – particularly vis-à-vis China and Russia. In many ways, political leaders and foreign policymakers in Paris and Berlin appear stuck a decade and a half in the past when it comes to relations with Beijing and Moscow. They appear far too willing to differentiate Europe from the United States when it comes to China, for instance, focusing less on technology, human rights, or even geopolitics than on advancing their own business and commercial interests.

Indeed, France and Germany – the EU’s largest and most influential member nations – have done themselves few favors with their policy choices in recent years. Both Berlin and Paris pushed through an EU investment deal with China in December 2020 over the public objections of the incoming Biden team (though EU ratification of the deal was later suspended), and French President Emmanuel Macron even declared in February that the European Union shouldn’t join the United States in a common approach to China policy. It’s an approach that’s drawn criticism from smaller EU members like Lithuania, which has questioned the outsized role Paris and Berlin play in setting the EU’s overall China policy. 

Matters aren’t much better when it comes to Russia policy, where both France and especially Germany appear to put business interests ahead of geopolitics and democratic values. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel barreled ahead with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Germany and Russia despite the threat of American sanctions (ultimately waived by the Biden administration) and the objections of Eastern European nations like Poland. Last summer, Merkel and Macron jointly pushed for a more accommodating EU policy toward Russia only to be opposed by Baltic EU members and Poland.

The United States only looks marginally better by comparison. It’s obvious that Washington in general and the Biden administration in particular want to devote greater attention to what foreign policy types clumsily call the Indo-Pacific region. But it’s not at all obvious what global role they envision for America’s long-standing allies in Europe, whether it’s in the Indo-Pacific or Europe itself. There’s a general sense that the United States and EU should work more closely on technology and trade issues – hence the creation of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council earlier this year – but the devil remains in the details, particularly when it comes to the regulation of Big Tech firms.

When it comes to traditional security questions, the picture is even more muddled. Does America want its European allies to help with security in the Indo-Pacific, or does the United States want them to hold down the fort in Europe and its wider strategic backyard? U.S. involvement in the deployment of the new British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its strike group to the Western Pacific (a squadron of Marine Corps F-35s are on board and a U.S. Navy destroyer is part of the strike group) appears to indicate one unacknowledged answer to this still-open question – though Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin indicated that Britain’s limited military power might be “more helpful in other parts of the world” as the United States focuses more on the Indo-Pacific.

Put another way, it’s all well and good to deepen security cooperation with Australia and the United Kingdom through AUKUS – but this agreement can’t answer the fundamental global strategic questions now confronting the United States and its European allies, questions both the agreement itself and the heated French response to it raises.

In the immediate term, however, there are three steps the United States can take to begin answering these fundamental strategic questions:

  1. Set clear strategic priorities and expectations. It may seem rather basic, but the United States should make clear to itself and its European allies the role it hopes they will play in the world moving forward – especially with regard to China and the Indo-Pacific region. The United States should also push its European allies to clarify their own thinking and expectations on these questions; indeed, it’s hard to look at the Australian submarine kerfuffle and not conclude that all four main parties failed to effectively communicate their expectations of one another. Looking ahead, there’s a need for a trans-Atlantic strategic dialogue that starts from the ground up – but that will only become possible once France calms down and Germany elects a new government to succeed Chancellor Merkel.

  2. Look to repair the damage. It’s important for the United States not to overreact to the heated rhetoric emanating from Paris. The Biden administration should let the French government air its grievances and refuse to take any of it personally, seeking instead to de-escalate matters without indulging in hyperbolic rhetoric of its own. There remain clear differences between the United States and France on core strategic issues like Russia and China, but there also remain potential areas for greater cooperation – such as Macron’s stated preference to focus on counterterrorism missions across the Mediterranean. It’s more than enough to work with, but the United States needs to actively engage its European allies in order to set priorities and establish an effective division of labor.

  3. Focus strategic cooperation with Europe on technology, trade, and politics. Defense issues will remain important for the United States and its European allies, but they’ll largely remain limited in geographic scope. The United States adds enormous value to European security via its commitments to NATO, but it’s not obvious that European allies can add much to the security of the Indo-Pacific through sporadic military deployments. Those deployments should be welcomed, but America’s European allies have much more to contribute when it comes to technology, trade, and support for liberal and democratic values around the world – and a good deal of America’s strategic frustration with Europe in recent years has involved its reluctance to take a clear stand on these issues when confronted with challenges to them presented by China and Russia.

In the end, the AUKUS security cooperation deal is a good idea handled exceptionally poorly in its diplomatic execution – mostly by Australia and the United States. However, this kerfuffle could have a silver lining if it forces the United States and its European allies into a deeper consideration of their mutual expectations and strategic priorities. The United States cannot and should not dictate terms to its allies, quietly or otherwise – and attempts by major European allies to distance or differentiate themselves from the United States will only lead to further ruptures.

Like it or not, America and Europe remain in it together – and they’ve got to find a way to make their relationship work.