What realities face France in the aftermath of the AUKUS defense pact? And what should a potential French Geostrategic response embody?
Join us as we apply our expertise to geopolitics and explore the answers to these questions.
This post and a few more following it will hold the most interest for folks with an inclination towards foreign policy, diplomacy, and geostrategy.
Along the way, we will bring in business perspectives, inform trade implications, and draw parallels with corporate strategy frameworks.
If you are up to date with the events that have transpired in the fortnight since September 15, feel free to jump to the fourth section of this post — Post-AUKUS Realities.
Before you do so though, here are English translations of Boris Johnson’s Franglais jibes, directed at Emmanuel Macron, that appear later in this post —
- Donnez-moi un break: Give me a break!
- Prenez un grip: Get a grip!
September 15, 2021, is likely to remain etched in the West’s Geopolitical Memory for a long time to come. Australia, United Kingdom, and the US announced the trilateral AUKUS pact on this day, seeking to “deepen diplomatic, security, and defense cooperation in the Indo-pacific region.” In doing so, they sidelined their European allies, most significantly, France.
A Throwback to Churchill
The two-week-old pact marks an ideological return to, or should I say confirmation of, the central idea in Churchill’s Sinews of Peace — “fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples.” That idea cemented the US — UK ‘special relationship’ and served as the basis of the Five Eyes alliance.
Indeed, some sections of Churchill’s speech read like they are two weeks old. See the box below for an example.
Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organisation will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth
and Empireand the United States. This is no time for generalities, and I will venture to be precise. Fraternal association requires not only the growing friendship and mutual understanding between our two vast but kindred Systems of society, but the continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisers, leading to common study of potential dangers, the similarity of weapons and manuals of instructions, and to the interchange of officers and cadets at technical colleges. It should carry with it the continuance of the present facilities for mutual security by the joint use of all Naval and Air Force bases in the possession of either country all over the world. This would perhaps double the mobility of the American Navy and Air Force. It would greatly expand that of the British EmpireForces and it might well lead, if and as the world calms down, to important financial savings.
The pact conveniently bypasses The European Union, another entity that originated in a speech by Churchill. Whether it’s the complexity of Bureaucracy or the growing departure from the US on critical issues, the EU stands sidelined.
Of the three leaders in AUKUS, only POTUS made any reference to European allies in the remarks announcing the pact. Since no one in the EU had prior knowledge of AUKUS, those remarks appear to vacillate between platitudes and hogwash.
That their anglophone allies surprised them shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore to the EU. AUKUS is the latest in a series of moves that have fallen on the EU’s blindside. You can count Iraq, Brexit, Trump, COVID Patents, Astra Zeneca row, and Afghanistan among them.
AUKUS: The French Connection
France has borne the brunt of the AUKUS blind side.
The first initiative of AUKUS will have the US and UK arm the Royal Australian Navy with long-range (and therefore nuclear-powered) submarines.
It comes at the cost of France’s 2016 deal with Australia supporting the latter’s Future Submarine Program with diesel-powered submarines. Australia has scrapped the deal, last evaluated at around US$ 60 Billion (AU$ 90 Billion), in favor of AUKUS.
It is a financial, commercial, diplomatic, and geopolitical blow to France. And though the deal had its well-documented issues, it is the manner of its death that has stung the French the most. Reactions across the French political spectrum have been caustic, to put it mildly. The EU’s response, though driven by the French frustrations, has been mild in comparison.
Even discounting the scrapped submarine deal, AUKUS’ circumvention of the French should be an insult to Paris, the only EU Power actively present in the region, for several reasons —
- France has a significant civilian presence, ~1.7 million citizens, in the Indo-Pacific as a large proportion of its overseas territories are in this region. Consequently, the French committment to Indo-Pacific is redoubtable.
- France has significant military presence in this region. The Guardian reports “8,000 soldiers and dozens of ships, including nuclear submarines, positioned in several bases.” The Diplomat similarly reports “7,000 defense personnel, 15 warships and 38 aircraft.”
- France has significant economic interests in the region. These are of two types —
- Trade with Indo-pacific Partners “represents more than a third of French trade in goods outside of the EU,” having grown 49% since 2010. In 2019, Indo-pacific accounted for 18% of French imports, 14% of French exports, and 8% of France’s global FDI.
- French Exclusive Economic Zone in the region measures around 10.2 million square km, second only to that of the US.
- France has history in the region due to colonial ties in the Indochina, Oceania, and Madagascar. See the territories marked in dark blue outside mainland Africa & Middle East in the map below.
These factors also represent what is likely a missed opportunity for AUKUS — using French assets and experience in the region as a launchpad for a formidable security partnership.
The Immediate Aftermath
A lot has happened in the days since AUKUS.
The French recalled their ambassadors to the US and Australia on Sep 17, 2021. As of this writing, they have decided to return their ambassador to the US this week. The decision follows from a telephonic conversation between the Presidents of the two countries.
France didn’t recall its ambassador to the UK. That may signal a French contention that the post-Brexit UK isn’t worth that level of outrage. Or maybe, it’s an indication that the French can’t afford to alienate the UK given geographic proximity. The French have publicly favored the former narrative.
They have also canceled a defense summit with the UK. Their Foreign Minister had some choice words to describe the UK’s role in AUKUS. He slammed the UK’s “permanent opportunism,” calling it the “fifth wheel on the (AUKUS) carriage.”
Relations won’t normalize anytime soon despite the UK Prime Minister calling the French President. A lot of baggage from Brexit remains unresolved even without the AUKUS row.
Much has been said and written about what France could, would, or should do. There’s been some talk of the French forcing the EU to delay trade talks with the Australians. The AUKUS affair may also impact EU – US trade relations.
The realpolitik associated with the April 2022 French Presidential election will also likely dictate the evolving French response. It will be interesting to see how things unfold in the times to come.
In the meantime, if they are to chart a nuanced response, the French must embrace certain post-AUKUS truths regardless of how bitter they are. That brings us to the crux of this post.
Sidebar — Lookout: Important Calendar Events
- Inaugural Meeting of the US – EU Trade and Technology Council, September 29, 2021
- COP 26, November 2021
- Round 12 of EU – Australia Trade Talks, October 2021
- Formation of the German Government, possibly within Q1 2022
- French Presidency of the EU, January – June 2022
- French Drawdown from Sahel, by April 2022
- French Presidential Election, April 2022
- NATO Summit in Madrid sometime in 2022
A few things should now be clear (or clearer) to the French Foreign Policy establishment —
- The Perfidious Albion is back…
- ‘Global Britain’ wouldn’t mind undermining post-war alliances in order to take center stage. Expect the British to compete more (with the EU and its constituents) and cooperate less in order to stand out on the world stage. Well duh! That was the point of Brexit. No surprises there.
- Freed from the ‘shackles’ of the EU, the UK’s best bet in standing out is to rejuvenate alliances within the Commonwealth, forming “fraternal associations of the English-speaking peoples.”
- … but the US is not.
- Well, not in the way Joe Biden proclaimed it earlier this year. It can be argued that there never was a question of the US being back. The US set the agenda in a unipolar world. It felt like a common agenda (e.g. war on terror) but it always was America First. Trump merely exposed the US.
- Of course none of this should be surprising for France. Cue in Dien Bien Phu and the Suez Crisis in the 1950s to Iraq War, and US withdrawls from Iran Nuclear Deal, Paris Agreement, and Afghanistan in this century. AUKUS is Emmanuel Macron’s ‘I told you so‘ moment. He will hope that the EU recieved his message, finally.
- Now, with multiple poles ascendant and the US having lost time and resources in its forever wars, expect more of America First. Except, instead of broad-based finesse, expect manueverable allliances. That brings us to the third reality.
- There are levels to multilateralism
- Slow, large scale multilateralism (e.g., EU, UN, NATO) may lose precedence to nimble, small scale, and ad-hoc alliances (e.g., AUKUS, Quad, Japan’s eleven bilateral defence agreements), at least in the short term.
- What’s worse is that Carpetbagger Diplomacy, the type of opportunistic and convenient dealmaking that Trump epitomized, is likely to become a part of mainstream geopolitics.
- Surge in such developments as noted above will be driven by the perceived ease with which they bear fruit versus the time taken by consultations in large groupings like the EU.
- America First, Global Britain, Australia First are all manifestations of this cold geostrategic calculus. The new belief, it seems, is that the world is too entangled for common-minimum programs of the past to secure national interests.
- Doveryai, no proveryai!
- Old Alliances may no longer guarantee trust or engagement in the new world. While the French need not become paranoid to survive but ‘Trust, but verify’ must become a rallying cry.
- This is important because more than anything else, the AUKUS debacle has exposed the failure of French Intelligence Apparatus or its naivete when it comes to gauging allies. Who needs foes, right?
So what does this mean for France?
Of all people, Boris Johnson may have provided them an answer. In the fashion of Churchill, he made light of the French anger over AUKUS by asking them to “Donnez-moi un break.” But it’s the other suggestion he gave them in Franglais that the French must heed now.
France must first prenez un grip.
AUKUS may end up becoming the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. However, there are other challenges like the Sahel, European Energy Security, and climate change. As humiliating as AUKUS may have been, tantrums won’t replace robust geostrategy. France needs to step back a little and reassess its global ambition and the pathway(s) that can lead to achieving it.
Ultimately, for the French, it is a question of building leverage and restoring the balance of power in their favor. The Strategist has some suggestions for that. And while that framework is the subject matter of our second post on French Geostrategy, here’s a sneak peek.
The Strategist’s View: A Sneak Peek
We are developing our view on the future French Geostrategy around three pillars —
- Directive Principles driven by the new realities you just read. Expect the Four Riders of Strategy, expounded previously in the context of business strategy, to feature here as well.
- Segmentation and Integration, an application of the 5W + 1H framework to geostrategy.
- Actors (Who) — Australia, the UK, the US, the EU, NATO, Russia, China…
- Areas (Where) — Local, Regional, Global… | Europe, Indo-Pacific, Middle East, Sahel…
- Timeframes (When & How Long) — short, medium, and long term + triggers & opportunities
- Instruments (How) — Trade & Supply Chains, Security, Climate, COVID, Maritime Logistics, Human Rights…
- Objectives (Why) — Gaullism & National Culture
- Themes (What) — Augment, Alter, Assemble, Assert
- Strategic Themes for improving leverage based on four fundamental questions the French must answer.
Can France augment existing arrangements within AUKUS and beyond?
Can France alter its role, expectations, and how it works with allies?
Can France assemble alternative alliances in the Indo-pacific and beyond?
Can France assert itself through aggression in diplomacy, trade, et cetera?
Let us know what you think in the comments below, and stay tuned as we develop these pillars further in upcoming posts.