Can Biden's short-lived honeymoon with Europe be salvaged?

·Contributor
·7-min read

BARCELONA — When President Biden stood before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday urging global coordination in battling crises like climate change and COVID while touting U.S. efforts to restore an “era of relentless diplomacy,” the words rang hollow in Europe, particularly in France.

The government of French President Emmanuel Macron has been lambasting the Biden administration over its undiplomatic behavior ever since last week’s announcement that the U.S., U.K. and Australia had formed a new Indo-Pacific security pact called AUKUS, in which Australia will buy $66 billion of U.S.-made nuclear submarines. That alliance, which Macron learned about only hours before being made public, effectively torpedoed a $37 billion Australian order with France for a submarine fleet.

“Something has been broken between the Biden administration and France — and possibly with all of Europe,” Philippe Le Corre, nonresident senior fellow in the Europe and Asia programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Yahoo News.

Joe Biden, right, and Emmanuel Macron
President Biden, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron at a NATO summit in Brussels, June 14, 2021. (Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“It was a public humiliation for France,” said Joseph de Weck, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and author of a recently published book about Macron. “France looked like it hadn’t been informed by its allies or had been lied to. And that is creating a problem of trust for the future.” 

In response, Macron, who faces a reelection battle in April, immediately recalled his ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, while his foreign minister called the act “a stab in the back” and “a huge breach of trust.”

While U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson — a clear winner in the new alliance — counseled Macron to “get a grip,” many European countries stood behind France: A major trade deal between Australia and the EU was scrapped, and a much-anticipated tech and trade summit between the EU and the U.S. scheduled for next week in Pittsburgh now looks uncertain. “This is a transatlantic train wreck,” said Roland Freudenstein, policy director of the Martens Centre for European Studies.

But the tensions between the Biden administration and the 27-country European Union extend beyond AUKUS. Leaders within the EU are increasingly distressed at Biden’s tendency to forego advising his transatlantic partners of his plans, as evidenced by the sudden, chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Allies who’d partaken in the U.S.-led war on terror for the previous 20 years were left scrambling to evacuate personnel.

A C-17 Globemaster takes off as Taliban fighters secure the outer perimeter, alongside the American controlled side of of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (Marcus Yam/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A C-17 Globemaster takes off as Taliban fighters secure the outer perimeter, alongside the American controlled side of of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (Marcus Yam/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Faith in the longstanding transatlantic alliance with the U.S., experts say, is eroding as the new administration pivots towards Asia, and many Europeans are worried that, despite promises to the contrary, many of the new American president’s policies seem indistinguishable from those of his predecessor.

Between the Afghanistan fiasco, the muscling in on the Australian submarine deal, and excluding France from the Indo-Pacific security pact despite the country's naval presence in the region, the Biden administration’s behavior of late regarding European allies “feeds the narrative that the United States is not to be trusted,” Le Corre added. “America has become so self-centered and so self-focused under Trump, and now under Biden, that it can’t even figure out the reaction of the Europeans when they do something like this.” He is also shocked that Australia, a vehemently anti-nuclear country, is purchasing nuclear submarines from the U.S. When France tried to sell them the same, Le Corre noted, Australia’s leadership rebuffed the idea, insisting they wanted conventional subs.

Policy experts are also concerned that in the name of controlling Chinese territorial overreach, the apparent goal of AUKUS, the U.S. would form a security club of solely English-speaking countries. Excluding EU countries, particularly France, makes little sense, according to de Weck. “France has the most powerful military in the EU, especially when it comes to submarine and naval abilities,” said de Weck, who noted that since Britain left the EU, France is its sole nuclear power. “France also has a close relationship with India, an important player in that region,” he added. “So to completely cut out France [from any Indo-Pacific security pact] seems a bit stupid because France has similar interests to the U.S. and Australia and India." As France has territories and naval bases in the region and ships already patrolling Indo-Pacific waters, he added, "They want to keep the seas open there. They also fear Chinese expansionism.”

A view of the Eiffel Tower
A view of the Eiffel Tower from an army helicopter over Paris. (Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

“Opinions seem to be in two camps in Brussels,” said Jamie Shea, a former NATO deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges and a senior fellow at Friends of Europe. “There’s the camp behind France, which argues that this is really bad behavior” on the part of the U.S. and Australia. “It’s insulting to an ally breaking an important deal.” The other camp, he said, argues “We need the United States, but we have to be careful. We can’t rely on them all the time, they are going to act unilaterally.” In short, “The honeymoon is over when it comes to believing that the U.S. will act in a multilateral way,” he said. And many Europeans are taken aback. “Biden came in with highfalutin rhetoric about how ‘America is back’ and would consult Europeans on every single thing and how NATO is a sacred commitment and the EU would be America's big partner," Shea added. "Biden came out on a very, very high pitch — and after Trump, Europeans were desperate to believe it."

Given “two successive crises within a couple of weeks,” Freudenstein is wondering where all Biden’s promised respect of allies has gone. “Some people are saying that the Biden administration is just not as expert and professional about politics and diplomacy as we had hoped they would be after Trump,” he said.

Yet for all the doom and gloom that was initially painted by some pundits — including that the brouhaha over the lost French submarine deal would endanger the U.S.-EU relationship for many years to come or even destroy it completely — signs of amelioration are already in the air. After giving Biden the cold shoulder for three days, Macron finally spoke with his American counterpart on Wednesday, agreeing to meet with him in late October at the G-20 summit in Rome. Macron is also sending his ambassador back to Washington, although thus far the French ambassador to Australia remains in France.

Joe Biden
Biden addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. (Timothy A. Clary/Pool/Getty Images)

Ali Wyne, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group, would welcome any thawing of Franco-American relations, and patching over problems in the transatlantic relationship. “It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the United States is able to address the transnational challenges that President Biden mentioned in his U.N. speech Tuesday without the European Union. Without Brussels, it is not possible.” He added that despite the announcement about the submarine deal, it won’t have any discernible effect on the military in the region for years, as realistically the submarines wouldn’t be delivered until 2030 or so.

Le Corre and others believe the best way to reconcile is to embrace France as a security ally in the Indo-Pacific region, even bringing it into AUKUS. “I don’t think French officials will let it go,” he said, until France is recognized as an important security partner in those waters. One snag with that idea is that the already awkward-sounding name might end up as FRAUKUS.

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