By Daniel Durgavich
Last Friday was supposed to be a night of celebration in Washington, as the French embassy had been preparing to host a gala to celebrate over two centuries of partnership with the United States.
Instead, the French began to pack up their entire embassy to return to Paris. The party was axed one day after Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced a new cooperation called the AUKUS alliance.
This deal, which was meant to bolster security in the Pacific against a rising China, instead has led to a rift between historic partners. What may have seemed like progress between the United States and France after a long four years has turned into a deeper division.
What is the status of the Franco-American relationship, and what could have been done to prevent this damage from occurring?
To best understand the reasons for the tension, it is important to first understand the complicated relations of the powers involved. France has historically supported the United States, provided aid and support crucial to its independence in an effort to challenge British hegemony.
The French people and government have always held a certain pride in the work between both states, and while the relationship ebbed and flowed following the French Revolution, the partnership mostly remained intact.
Following World War II, however, this relationship shifted. Post-war France was not quite in the position that it had been at the beginning of World War 1. While France continued to work with the United States, its fierce belief in its own independence of thought and position as a key actor led it often to be in conflict with Washington.
Charles de Gaulle famously would hold up NATO’s actions if it did not benefit France directly, much to the ire of the other partners. While this more strained relationship did not stop all cooperation (the United States initial entry into Vietnam being a key example of partnership), it has since always been more strained.
Even in recent conflicts like the Iraq War, France has refused to allow the United States to pass through its airspace to complete missions. This is only emphasized by its dedication to the European Union, which further curtails its ability to act with the United States in a bilateral manner.
In contrast, the United Kingdom, and its former Dominion states, have had a “special relationship” with the United States since at least WW2, a relationship fostered by Winston Churchill during his second term as Prime Minister.
This was done in particular to counterbalance the Soviet Union, and led to the creation of pacts such as NATO which endure today. Even beyond those treaties, the bilateral and multilateral ties of the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand remain strong, both in combat operations and intelligence gathering.
The common history ties these states together, and while initially the United States looked to France as its European ally, the global stage shifted its focus.
For the UK, this new partnership is all the more necessary following its exit from the European Union, as it seeks to return to the global stage on its own terms. The formation of AUKUS is done at the right moment to meet the challenges posed by a rising China, and to reinforce the historic partnerships in uncertain times.
It is only natural, then, that France is frustrated. The long memory of France continues to want to work with the United States as a partner, and yet they claim to have been kept in the dark.
This is made even more frustrating as the partnership includes the United Kingdom, whose continued role in Europe is murky at best. Worst of all, Australia withdrew from France’s largest military contract, one which ensured France’s continued presence in a region largely out of their sphere.
Certainly, the French are not alone among American allies in their frustration; New Zealand was also caught off guard by the news and equally frustrated. As a state which bans all forms of nuclear activity, New Zealand has already banned the new submarines from their waters. Yet this frustration pales in comparison to the French’s ire, which increases daily and is far more public.
Despite the anger in Paris, the question of what could have been done is highly unclear. From a realist perspective, all the actors involved in AUKUS are working in their own interest.
The United States is bolstering their presence in the region, securing new airbases while empowering a close ally. The United Kingdom, already eager to reengage in the area, reaffirms old partnerships and ensures it remains an active member. Australia, frequently frustrated with China, is now given the tools it feels it needs to properly engage in countering its regional rival.
Moreover, this agency is given by two actors with much larger ties to the region, and who have provided evidence of their commitment to Australia in the past. Given how France reacted to the news, it is unclear if they would have kept the development of such a partnership secret if they were informed of it.
None of these reasons properly satisfy France, however, and the removal of ambassadors is a significant sign of a potentially broken relationship. How Paris reacts to AUKUS may have wide-ranging effects. There is always the chance that France removes itself from other partnerships, such as NATO, shifting the balance in the other areas of the world.
What is made clear by France’s actions is that they wish to be taken seriously as an integral part of every security decision made by the United States and its partners which could have any impact on its interests. This may be an overestimation on the part of France as to its personal importance, but should be noted all the same.
It reflects a divide in belief about the role of military power in the modern age, an age now defined by increasing instability. The United States must weigh if it can really afford to fully lose a partner in France, and thereby potentially lose its partners in Europe.
This question of losing European partners is not new and has become all the more real since the end of the Cold War. As Europe has sought to further unite itself into a more formal compact, it has increasingly been at odds with American security concerns.
This is of no surprise to realist operators, who acknowledge that Europe’s geographic position places it in a different position than its American partners. But as Europe considers developing a united military front, and asserting its own security priorities more clearly, the withdrawal of the French ambassador may be the harbinger of things to come.
This is especially prescient if France assumes a position of greater authority in Europe in the coming years. This is certainly not an ideal outcome from the perspective of maintaining alliances, but the cost of shoring up the relationship may be too high.
A quiet apology may go a long way, but the present environment is not one of apologies. The United States made a call in its interests to work with partners who have significant history and presence in the crucial area of the Indo-Pacific.
If the US is to continue to be able to secure its interests, it must be willing to draw hard lines with regards to its partners. It cannot constantly be trying to placate partners who are stridently against those interests, no matter the history. While a financial deal was lost for France, there has been no lessening of the commitment the United States has for it and its security. A bruised ego will should not lead to a rash decision that Paris cannot undo.
Only time can tell how long this spat will last. However, spats are not reasons to change calculations of national interest.
The United States should stand firmly behind decisions that logically advance its interests, just as France did when it aided the United States over two centuries ago.
Daniel Durgavich holds a B.A. in Foreign Affairs and a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of Virginia. His thesis focuses on the challenges of the Sino-Russian partnership in Europe.