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Not Just Submarines: France and America Have Never Been Easy Allies

Australia France Submarine
Image: Creative Commons.

How big of a problem is French disgruntlement with the AUKUS submarine deal? A phone call between French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden seemed to cool off the most immediate aspects of the diplomatic crisis, but there remains a cause for worry in Washington and Paris.

French irritation with the United States isn’t new. During World War II, General Charles De Gaulle fought bitterly against his partners in London and Washington in order to maintain as much autonomy as possible for the Free French. This included warding off efforts to offer an olive branch to the Vichy regime, or to integrate unrepentant Vichy personnel into the Free French political structure. Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the hostility between De Gaulle and Roosevelt, a hostility that Churchill could only paper over from time to time. During the Cold War, De Gaulle pursued an independent streak, leading France out of NATO’s military structure and in general proving a pain in the ass to anyone who sought to cooperate with France. It would be fair to say that intransigence in the face of Anglo-American solidarity has been an important component of French political culture since the 1940s.

Much has changed, but the example set by De Gaulle continues to characterize much French foreign policy. The Biden administration made choices with respect to the processing of the deal with Australia that probably made sense at the time, but obviously didn’t take seriously enough the prospect of French displeasure. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s trite dismissal of French anger probably won’t help the situation.

What’s the worst that could happen? France can do serious damage to US foreign policy efforts in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, although more so in the former than in the latter. France’s aircraft carrier and its nuclear attack submarines would undoubtedly be helpful in the Western Pacific, but in the long run they probably matter less than the SSNs that this deal could deliver to Australia.

France is unlikely, to be sure, to seek any kind of alignment with China. France’s territorial and political interests in the Pacific both tend to align with the United States, but disagreements like this could disrupt cooperation on basing and communications. France may also need to worry about its defense relationship with India. While that relationship has enjoyed some significant successes as of late, France clearly shouldn’t feel secure in the long-term security of its relationship. The future of Indian military power is important to the United States, and France obviously has a role to play in that question.

On the European side, France’s historic security ties with Russia suggest that it has a bit more freedom of action in Europe than would make the US or the UK strictly comfortable. France’s commitment to NATO has always been sketchy, and these events won’t help alleviate the perpetual existential crisis that the organization seems to feel. With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, one of the ties that bound the western alliance was lost, and it’s possible France may step up its efforts to pursue an independent foreign policy with respect to Russia.

Globally, much of what the United States wants to do in geopolitical terms requires the cooperation of Europe, and of course, France remains one of the most influential powers in Europe. In particular, US efforts to develop a technology alliance designed both to boost innovation and to keep the most advanced technologies out of Chinese hands requires enthusiastic European participation. Europe has its own reasons to jealously defend its tech sector, but US action may dampen some enthusiasm in France for paying the more serious costs of trade discrimination.

It is perhaps fortunate that there exists no constituency inside the United States to denounce Biden for poor relations with the French, apart from dead-ender Hamilton fans. Part of the French explosion is driven by domestic politics, and Biden administration should be understanding of that. France’s diplomatic behavior is also strategic, however. By making such a serious demonstration of French displeasure, Macron is attempting to deter this kind of behavior in the future. The United States would be well-advised to do its best to mitigate French unhappiness, and to approach gingerly any issues in which France feels it has established interests.  In particular, France will be watching the behavior of the United States towards India very carefully.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.



  1. Mario DeLosa

    September 23, 2021 at 9:52 am

    Issues with France come down to fragility of ego and an inflated sense of self importance. Both are absolutely related to the idea that France should be the leading European power and its rapid defeat during WWII. However, it is indisputable that France is America’s oldest ally and the disrespectful way the agreement between the US, UK and Australia was conducted without involving France can hardly be described as constructive or well advised.

  2. Slack

    September 23, 2021 at 10:29 pm

    There are basically THREE groups or strata of humans on this planet.
    2)anglos and miniobs
    3)none of the above

    France has recently become completely aware of this reality. There is no such thing as equality, fraternity and brotherhood. Just pure BS.
    Instead we have an hierarchy on Earth where anglos have decided the order of things is done or placed according to power of authority and reward. So much for relentless diplomacy. Actually it’s full court control.

  3. Jimmy John Doe

    September 24, 2021 at 9:02 am

    France must know US supplying nuclear subs to Australia is like IBM sending computational systems to axis powers or boeing providing bombers to axis powers.

    Australia is dreaming of hatching its own ‘iraq operation’ or ‘afghanistan job’ in asia amd US and UK are acting like IBM and Boeing. With such people unable to see beyond their noses, how is mankind able to make it to mars.

  4. Slack

    September 24, 2021 at 12:55 pm

    The French should remind America that a recently declassified but still heavily redacted CIA report on foreign sub detection tech confirmed that a US nuclear sub was tracked for six days by a russian boat.

    The US should not have elbowed the french submarine sale to australia down to the abyss. Shades of freedom fries being served to canberra isn’t it.

  5. E.M. Shalev

    September 25, 2021 at 3:52 pm

    The author of these apologetics focuses entirely on the ‘sua culpa’ of the US as if there were no context, and no ‘mea culpa’ on the part of the EU. However there is context and there is a ‘mea culpa’ for the EU to ponder and a biblical rejoinder (Hosea 8:7) for the EU to reflect upon: “those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind”. In December of 2020, weeks before the inauguration of an incoming first term US President, the EU hastily concluded the new Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China thus gaining enhanced access to the Chinese market for EU companies among other advantages. This was not a slap in the face to the outgoing president but a kick in the butt of the new President. It is clear that no such substantial EU initiative can be promoted without France and Germany firmly committing to it. One must necessarily ask: with the new alignment in the Indo-Pacific region, has the whirlwind exhausted itself, or will it continue to blow?

  6. thelaine

    September 27, 2021 at 10:26 am

    France is no friend of the US.

  7. Sun Yat-Sen

    September 27, 2021 at 12:46 pm

    “Miniobs”? Do you mean “minions”?

    Slack, you now have company with Jimmy John Doe commenting.

  8. Donald Link

    October 2, 2021 at 12:38 pm

    There is also a psychological factor in play beyond the exchange of obsolescent diesel subs for nuclear. Ever since the defeat of the French by British and Prussian forces at Waterloo and two subsequent wars with German and a near defeat in WW I, they have felt it necessary to rise above an appellation of inferiority. The original deal was a non-starter to begin with and some responsibility lies with the Australians who were trying to make nice with a country that no longer has vital interests beyond the commercial in the Pacific. As Winston Churchill replied when asked what was his greatest cross in the war, he said : “the Cross of Lorraine”.

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