France's beef with the U.S.

A new submarine deal between Australia and the U.S. infuriated France. But why?
Isaac Saul Sep 23, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.” First time reading? Sign up here. Would you rather listen? You can find our podcast here.

Today's read: 11 minutes.

We're covering the spat with France. Plus, a reader asks a question about cryptocurrencies.

French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo taken by Remi Jouan

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Quick hits.

  1. Bipartisan police reform talks crumbled yesterday, with negotiations at a stalemate over predictable key issues like qualified immunity. (The talks)
  2. Democrats have introduced a bill in Congress to provide $1 billion for Israel's Iron Dome defense system, just days after progressives had the funding removed from a stopgap spending bill. (The cash)
  3. Joe Biden's envoy to Haiti has resigned, citing mistreatment and deportations of Haitian refugees on the border. (The resignation)
  4. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered a slash in climate-warming chemicals used in air-conditioning and refrigeration. (The order)
  5. Existing home sales in the U.S. fell in August and price growth slowed, the first signs that the housing market may be cooling off. (The data)

Today's topic.

France. And, more specifically, why France, our oldest ally, is mad at us. Late last week, the United States announced that it would work with Australia and the United Kingdom in a new defense partnership, one in which the U.S. would hand over its nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia. The security coalition is called AUKUS.

Once Australia made the new pact with the U.S. and United Kingdom, it also abandoned a $66 billion submarine defense deal it had with France. In response to the new security arrangement, and the loss of the defense deal, French President Emmanuel Macron took the unprecedented step of recalling the French ambassadors to the U.S., signaling a tension between the two countries that has not been seen since they first formed an alliance over two centuries ago.

The broader context for AUKUS is that the Indo-Pacific region is becoming a major security focus for the U.S. and its allies as China's power and influence continues to rise. Major territorial disputes in the South China sea, which is one of the most valuable shipping lanes on the planet, have become more common lately. China is building military outposts throughout the region, and the U.S. has wanted to respond with a stronger security presence and better alliances. This deal is a part of that plan.

To France, the deal was seen as a betrayal. Not just because of the lost defense contract, but because of its deep ties to the region: more than 1.6 million French people live in French territories in the South Pacific, the island-heavy region east of Australia, including some 7,000 soldiers who are permanently deployed there. France's submarine contract with Australia, signed in 2016, was part of a broader plan for strategic autonomy in the South Pacific.

The United States' decision to strike the deal with little consultation with France, and France's reaction, has drawn all sorts of commentary about the future of their relationship, the new security alliances globally, and Biden's foreign policy.  On Wednesday, Biden and Macron spoke by phone for the first time since the dust up, and Macron announced that France was planning to send its ambassador back to the U.S. The two also made plans to meet in Europe at the end of October.

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions from across the political spectrum — in the U.S. and abroad.


Agreed.

In yesterday's newsletter, both the left and the right were critical of Biden's speech for different reasons. On this issue, there seems to be more common ground: Many on the left and right are happy about the new security arrangement to challenge China, but disappointed in the lack of communication with France.


What the right is saying.

The right is supportive of the deal because it represents a strong stand against China.

Henry Olsen called it a "masterstroke" in a Washington Post op-ed.

"Nuclear-powered subs have significant advantages over diesel-powered vessels," Olsen wrote. "They do not need to surface to recharge batteries, for example, and the boats Australia is likely to receive from the United States never need to refuel. Those Virginia-class submarines can also launch up to 16 Tomahawk missiles, giving Australia a small offensive capability that China would need to account for in the event of any conflict. Those boats could also theoretically be armed with nuclear weapons, although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison unequivocally stated his country would not acquire such weaponry.

"This masterstroke is exactly what the United States should be doing to combat China," Olsen added. "As powerful as China is, it cannot match the combined capabilities of the United States and its allies. U.S. diplomats should be directed to firm up those alliances and increase allies’ military capabilities. The more that Asian democracies are united in response to Chinese aggression, the less likely China is to embark on military adventures such as invading Taiwan.”

Walter Russell Mead added context on how this impacts Macron, who is up for a tough re-election fight in France.

"It is, to begin with, a massive public humiliation for Emmanuel Macron just as the next French electoral campaign begins to heat up," Mead wrote. "President Macron and his government were blindsided by a development of vital importance to French interests and international standing. The French Foreign Ministry has accused the AUKUS powers of 'backstabbing' and even treachery, but it’s the business of a country’s diplomatic, military and intelligence establishments to prevent such surprises. The French don’t elect their presidents to be hapless patsies hornswoggled by stupid Americans, provincial Australians and unspeakable Brits.

"But this is bigger than Mr. Macron," he wrote. "The submarine contract was a centerpiece of Paris’s strategy for the 21st century. Building on its military strength, diplomatic acumen and technological sophistication to defeat Japan in the original competition for the Australian submarine contract, France felt it had established a position of lasting influence in the heart of the Indo-Pacific... The collapse of this glorious dream hits the French hard and triggers deep-seated fears of decline."


What the left is saying.

The Washington Post editorial board said the deal is "a major boost in military capability on the pro-U.S. side of the regional balance."

"Unsurprisingly, the Global Times, a Chinese government newspaper, accused the United States of 'losing its mind trying to rally its allies against China.' But in fact, the news represents strong and overdue pushback against both Beijing’s economic harassment of Canberra and its broader naval bullying in the Indo-Pacific region," the board wrote. "French objections gloss over preexisting Australian unhappiness with France’s execution of the two countries’ sub-building arrangement, but the Biden administration should take them seriously. In moving its foreign policy focus from the Middle East toward great-power competition with China, the United States needs its transatlantic allies, of which France is arguably the most militarily capable.

"Additionally, the United States must head off any impression that its strategy in the Pacific rests only on English-speaking allies, or that it has no geoeconomic component," the board added. "In that respect, the Biden administration is right to follow up the AUKUS announcement with a Sept. 24 White House meeting between President Biden and the leaders of Japan and India, as well as Australia — the so-called Quad."

Lionel Laurent said the "Anglosphere" is happy to downplay France’s anger "as a mix of sour grapes and electoral theater," but warned that it goes deeper.

"It also ignores the damaging double humiliation inflicted by the Biden administration, happy to underwrite the shredding of this contract in a farcically cloak-and-dagger way," Laurent wrote. "The promise of a return to consensus-building and multilateralism in transatlantic relations after Donald Trump’s presidency is withering on the vine, the messy American withdrawal from Afghanistan only a few weeks ago being an example. Memories of Trump aren’t just French, but European.

"Paris will keep 'Europeanizing' this conflict as it takes up the EU rotating presidency, to varying degrees of success," Laurent said. "Trade talks with Australia will likely hit a brick wall, a new U.S.-EU partnership on trade and technology will likely suffer, and simmering Brexit tensions with the U.K. will probably keep flaring up. Nothing on its own to make the White House lose sleep, given its focus on a foreign policy that can be sold to the American middle-class. But hardly conducive to progress on global issues like climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the rise of China, not least because Australia will now have to wait even longer to renew its submarine fleet. There’s now a 'big rift' in the heart of NATO, the U.K.’s former ambassador to France, Peter Ricketts, points out."


Views from abroad.

Sylvie Kauffmann, the editorial director of Le Monde, said it's about more than just bruised egos.

"This diplomatic bombshell has crudely exposed the unwritten rules of great-power competition, in which France cannot be a player unless it carries the weight of the European Union behind it," Kauffmann said. "The past week has been about 21st-century geopolitics and the brutal adjustment of old alliances to new realities. France considers itself a “resident power” in the Indo-Pacific region, a crucial battleground for the rivalry between America and China, because it possesses several islands and maintains four naval bases there. It developed its own strategy for the region in 2018 and has been pushing since then for the European Union to come up with a similar project. Ironically, the European Union’s Indo-Pacific strategy was presented on the very day the deal, known as AUKUS, became public. The plan was, of course, drowned out by the uproar."

Sam Roggeveen, an expert on Australian defense and foreign policy, said Australia is taking a big risk.

"Australia seems to be assuming that America will remain engaged in Asia for the long haul and will be prepared to face down China if necessary — but it shouldn’t," Roggeveen wrote. "Australia has been subject to economic coercion from China against its exports, such as barley and coal. Chinese hackers were implicated in a breach of the Australian parliament’s website in 2019. Its security agencies report widespread espionage and interference activities. And its ministers have been frozen out by their Chinese counterparts. Last year, a Chinese diplomat even released a list of 14 grievances Beijing holds against Australia — a document that featured in deliberations at the Group of 7 summit in June.

"Like the United States, Australia’s government has watched with increasing alarm the rapid and extensive buildup of China’s military capabilities, particularly its naval forces," he added. "The Biden team agreed because it, too, is worried about China. But there is a difference. The United States is in Asia by choice; Australia has no such luxury."


My take.

This is not my area of expertise, and I read the takes above with likely as much fascination as you did. But I do think there is something obvious and significant here in bold print: This alliance is marking a new era of American military and trade focus.

It's clear to the U.S., the UK, France, China and Australia that the future of the global power centers is the Indo-Pacific region. Regardless of where they stand, the conflicts of the future do not appear to be forming in the Middle East, Europe or northern Africa. They're more likely going to be in the oceans surrounding Australia, Japan, Taiwan, China, and the other island nations scattered across the South Pacific. That the United States would make this deal — knowing full well the damage it'd do in France — is proof of Biden's commitment to showing strength against the Chinese and clear evidence that he plans to re-align the U.S. with every ally it can muster, especially in this part of the world.

There's no surprise that Biden has gotten more praise for this from his conservative critics than just about anything he's done to date. It represents a major shift of our focus, and one Trump and conservatives before Trump had been calling for. It will be fascinating to see the alliances this kind of diplomacy forges — especially given the top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, is a known China hawk. That means the Democratic president and the most powerful Democrat in the upper chamber of Congress are both aligned with a majority Republican opinion to focus on China as our top adversary — no small thing.

As for France, it's hard to do anything but shrug. Of course, there is more to this than Macron just electioneering, but there's also no doubt that a little anti-American sentiment can go a long way in a French election. The fact that Macron and Biden seem to have already made up — with the French ambassadors heading back and a meeting scheduled in Europe for the end of October — tells you all you need to know. There are bigger fish to fry than the French feelings about their place in the global power centers, and the billions in lost defense revenue has just as much to do with Australia's unhappiness with their current deal with France as it does with any "backstabbing" by the U.S.

C'est la vie, or something.


Your questions, answered.

Q: What are your thoughts on where crypto is headed from a regulatory, policy, and political direction?

— Khara, Las Vegas, Nevada

Tangle: It's tough to answer such a broad question succinctly, but I expect heavy crypto regulation and a lot more institutional interest in the next five years.

For starters, Congress tends to hate things that are new or that they don't understand. Obviously, cryptocurrencies have also been used to facilitate all sorts of illicit activities, and members are already seizing on that to call for more regulation and SEC involvement. In Biden's attempts to raise money for his infrastructure bills, we also saw legislators attempt to milk the crypto cow for cash. I expect that to continue and cryptocurrencies to become a political football going forward.

I've personally been "in the space" since 2015, when a friend first introduced me to Ethereum. Seeing crypto become mainstream so quickly has been mind boggling. One interesting thread of the story is that crypto is going to become more and more important to younger Americans, especially wealthy ones who invested in coins early on, and those voters will have big political sway in the coming years. There will be a real opening for Democratic or Republican caucuses to champion crypto and win over that powerful voting bloc with crypto-friendly policies, but it's not at all clear to me which party that will be.

I'd keep an eye on two things, though: One, do Republicans contextualize crypto as something that needs to be protected from government intervention or something that is helping facilitate crime? Two, do Democrats contextualize crypto as an avenue to close the wealth gap or as a treacherous threat to the climate? Those seem to be the competing narratives on each side right now, and whichever theories pan out will have a huge impact on the industry going forward.


A story that matters.

Thousands of green cards could be going to waste thanks to a backlog in the U.S. immigration system. While many tech workers have waited years to get a green card, which would grant them permanent legal status in the U.S., pandemic-related processing delays will keep them waiting even longer. Because the U.S. makes a certain number of family-based and employment-based green cards available each year, they sometimes roll those cards over into the next year. But nearly 100,000 extra green cards have still not been granted that are available, and if they don't get the applications sorted by fiscal year end (Sept. 30) the cards won't carry over again.

"The idea that we will leave tens of thousands of these applications unfilled at a time when businesses around the country are having a hard time finding qualified workers seems illogical," Google senior vice president of global affairs Kent Walker told Axios. "So we're really trying to encourage people to come together to fix this issue." Axios has the story.


Numbers.

  • 1778. The year France recognized the independence of the United States, widely considered as the beginning of their allegiance to each other.
  • 29%. The rise in the murder rate in the year 2020, the largest single year increase since the FBI started tracking data in 1960.
  • 12.7%. The rise in the murder rate in 1968, the previous largest one year change.
  • 40,000. The number of Afghans who are now being offered temporary housing globally by Airbnb.
  • 42%. The percentage of military spending across all of Asia that is done by China.

Have a nice day.

The girls on Afghanistan's national soccer team have safely arrived in Portugal, where they were granted asylum. Members of the team had been waiting anxiously to find out if they and their families could flee the country safely, and on Sunday they finally got word that they had been booked on a charter flight to Portugal. The girls, aged 14-16, have been trying to leave Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal. Late Sunday night, they finally landed in Lisbon, with a world of new opportunities in front of them. The Associated Press has the story.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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