WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 (Reuters) – European capitals celebrated the visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June, as President’s top diplomat Joe Biden made French jokes in Paris, posed for selfies with young French and spoke at length about the revitalization of the transatlantic. love relationship.
It was a breath of fresh air after four years of former President Donald Trump’s brash “America First” administration, during which US ties with Europe shifted from crisis to crisis. another in the midst of political decisions that have often blinded European countries.
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But less than three months after Blinken’s repair tour, Washington finds itself in an unprecedented diplomatic crisis with France over a trilateral deal with Britain to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. who sank a $ 40 billion contract for French-designed ships.
France reacted with fury, claiming that the new agreement had been drawn up behind its back and resorting to almost new language in public statements between allies, calling it “brutal” and “a stab in the back”.
On Friday, he went further, taking the extraordinary step of recalling his ambassadors to Washington and Australia and accusing the Biden administration of acting like Trump in dismissing Paris.
Analysts say the crisis is more than business and confidence-building, and while U.S. officials hope it ends quickly, it has the potential to cause lasting damage to the alliance with France and Europe and throw doubt about Washington’s united front. sought to counter the rise of China.
French diplomats said they first learned of the deal when information leaked to Australian media hours before the official announcement on Wednesday, although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisted he had made it clear to French President Emmanuel Macron in June that he could cancel the agreement with France.
Either way, from the French point of view, the US decision goes against what the Biden administration has promised since the end of the Trump era: a return to multilateralism and close cooperation with partners. and allies, with Europe being an important element.
“It makes Europeans understand that some of Trump’s policies, beyond scandals and tweets, may not have been an aberration but signaled a deeper estrangement from Europe,” said Benjamin Haddad, director of the Atlantic Council Europe Center.
âAt a time when the Biden administration wants to bring Europeans together in a common transatlantic front to push back China’s assertion, why not call on the EU’s key player in the region?
Some see a clumsy new policy from the Biden administration in the wake of its chaotic end to the two-decade US intervention in Afghanistan, about which European countries have complained they were not properly consulted.
“Like Afghanistan, this new ‘America First’ opus is poorly designed and even worse executed,” said a French diplomat.
ATTEMPTS TO ALLOW FRENCH ANGRY
Blinken tried to allay French anger, calling France a vital and long-time ally in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, and the White House and State Department quickly issued calming statements after Paris has recalled its ambassadors.
The State Department said Washington hopes to continue discussions on the issue at a higher level in the coming days, including at the United Nations General Assembly next week.
David Bell, professor of history at Princeton University, said the precedent indicated the crisis would eventually collapse.
The French were clearly “very annoyed” and showed it “quite dramatically”, he said, while recalling the previous moments of high tension, notably the withdrawal of France from NATO command in the 1960s and the 2003 refusal to join the US-led invasion. from Iraq.
But diplomatic relations have not been suspended and, at some point, the ambassadors will be fired, Bell predicted, noting that Macron’s gesture precedes a potentially tight re-election race next year.
“Macron is trying to revive this Gaullist tradition of French independence” in foreign policy, he said.
WEAKENING OF THE INDO-PACIFIC FRONT
While NATO allies may well find ways to recover from what some see as the worst diplomatic crisis in their history, experts warn of serious damage to Biden’s broader strategy in China.
The trilateral submarine deal is expected to strengthen the hand of the United States and its allies in the face of China’s rise to power, but the damage caused by France’s alienation could prevail.
“China must laugh until the bank,” said Francois Heisbourg, senior advisor for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They have the prospect of removing the potential presence of Europe alongside the United States in the Indo-Pacific zone.”
Although strengthening ties between the United States and Australia would concern the Chinese government, France, the EU’s main military power, has taken a firm stand in urging a hard line on China. while other EU countries such as Germany seemed more concerned not to disrupt trade relations with Beijing. .
âThere is a downside for China, but I think the advantage is greater – the idea that Europe is essentially going to stay behind the scenes and not play an active role in the Indo-Pacific as a whole. “said Heisbourg.
He said France could narrow its focus to focusing on its specific Indo-Pacific interests, rather than working to push China back more broadly.
A day after the announcement of the submarine deal, the European Union unveiled its official strategy to strengthen its presence in the Indo-Pacific and counter China. But with France deflated, there is an increased risk that this effort will be stillborn or that the transatlantic strategy towards China will become even more disjointed, Heisbourg said.
“We have to survive on our own, as others do,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, speaking of the “strategic autonomy” that France and Macron have championed.
Even so, other analysts believe the compelling need to counter Beijing will help Western countries overcome their differences.
âThe growing level of global anxiety over China is the tide that lifts all boats here,â said Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“I’m pretty confident that there are going to be a few tough months ahead, but Paris will get over it because its strategic interests dictate that it has to get over it.”
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Heather Timmons and Mike Stone; Editing by Mary Milliken and Daniel Wallis
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