“Un coup de Trafalgar!” shouted the French elite last week. Parisian naval analogists were mourning Australia’s decision to withdraw from a $66-90 billion contract to buy twelve French diesel-electric submarines and replace that deal with a new agreement to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines outfitted with American and British technology and expertise to ease their integration into the Royal Australian Navy. President Biden announced the deal as the cornerstone of a new tripartite alliance combining Australia with the United Kingdom and United States (under the working acronym “AUKUS”) to counter Chinese expansion in the Pacific, an alignment the overlaps that extant “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing agreement, which includes those three countries as well as Canada and New Zealand.
It takes a lot of trauma to invoke a historic naval defeat as a metaphor for a diplomatic reversal. For Americans, 9/11 was the new Pearl Harbor. The Russian Empire suffered the “diplomatic Tsushima” of the Bosnia Crisis, a pre-World War I debacle following on their epic 1905 naval defeat by Japan, both of which severely damaged Russia’s standing as a great power.
France appears to imagine that the blow to its prestige may be as great. Indeed, it canceled a planned Washington embassy gala to commemorate the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes, where its navy prevented the British from breaching the blockade of Lord Cornwallis’s army besieged at Yorktown. Defeated by a joint Franco-American effort, the British soon thereafter surrendered and handed independence to the American colonists.
One might wonder how many strategic planners recall that the victorious French fleet of that era went on only a few months later to catastrophic defeat by the British in the Caribbean. But in addition to their embarrassed reference to Trafalgar, the battle that ended Napoleonic naval power in 1805, French political leaders have denounced the current crisis a “stab in the back,” “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners,” and, simply, “deviousness.” They have compared its surprise announcement to what they see as the worst excesses of the Trump administration’s diplomacy. President Macron angrily recalled France’s ambassadors to Washington and Canberra—unprecedented actions in the diplomatic histories of the countries involved—while leaving its ambassador in London apparently only to spite the UK by implying that the British role in the new deal is so small that is lies beneath the Élysée’s notice (albeit that France did cancel defense talks with the UK that were due to take place in late September).
To a degree, French anger is understandable. The inescapable interpretation that France, and by broader implication a European Union that no longer includes the UK, is strategically and militarily less important in the face of a still inordinately powerful America committed to a “Pivot to Asia” and a revitalized “Global Britain” drawing closer to the United States is intolerable to Old Europe’s sensibilities. It fundamentally imperils the project of an idealized but deeply troubled “ever closer union” whose proponents envision it as one of several powers in a multipolar world that they hope might operate and be managed somewhat like post-Napoleonic nineteenth-century Europe, only run by Brussels-dwelling Eurocrats rather than spa-lounging aristocrats (though, perhaps inevitably, there is some overlap).
Losing the deal at what appears to have been only a few hours’ notice obviously ground salt into the wound. Biden’s announcement of the new “AUKUS” alliance was characteristically clumsy—he even appeared to forget Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s name and stumblingly referred to him as “the man Down Under” and “pal” while announcing a major military alliance with his country. As was the case in last month’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, key allies were not consulted in advance, and the world was astonished by an unwitting coup de théâtre that made Trumpian diplomacy seem staid. By taking the lead in announcing the new alliance, Biden even lent unwarranted credence to angry French accusations that the affair resulted from an American betrayal even though Australia pulled out of the deal at its own initiative rather than on the instructions of a suddenly astute Biden White House.
No nation likes to lose an arms deal, especially one negotiated painstakingly over a number of years that reaches into the multiple tens of billions of dollars. Depending on the contract’s precise terms, France may well have a serious legal claim against the Australian government. But from the Anglo-American-Australian perspective, the military logic is unimpeachable. Nuclear submarines have longer range, can remain submerged for greater amounts of time, and operate more quietly than diesel vessels. Much of the commentary has suggested that the French contract was late and over budget, and that Australia’s specialists believed that the diesel submarines would have been obsolete before they came into operational service.
Adopting more advanced nuclear vessels for use against China is in the strategic interest of any country opposing Beijing, a category that now includes Australia after a viciously conducted trade war soured Canberra on cultivating a more neutral position in the brewing Sino-American Cold War. In the long run, having the right hardware to contain China easily trumps (pun intended) the legal and financial consequences of breaking a contract or creating a diplomatic incident with France that many observers expect will pass.
Beijing has implicitly acknowledged this reasoning by decrying Australia’s prospective nuclear submarine force as a frightful escalation of tension. Its foreign affairs spokesman has called it an “extremely irresponsible” move that “has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts,” even though nuclear-powered submarines are not themselves nuclear weapons and do not necessarily carry them (Australia denies having any intention of acquiring nuclear weapons despite possessing one-third of the world’s uranium). What the Chinese almost certainly mean is that they have no effective way to counter the nuclear vessels but could have dealt with the inferior diesel-electric submarines, to which they registered no objection.
In all its invective, France has ignored perhaps the most “Anglo-Saxon” point—that it would not be in this predicament had it marketed and sold better submarines to Australia (and kept to the cost and timeframes of the deal), which it considers the central pillar of France’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, whatever that might be. The subtler point, which the Quai d’Orsay is reluctant to announce loudly if it all, is that this latest debacle undermines France’s more detectable global strategy, which is to triangulate between Washington and Beijing, much as Charles de Gaulle tried to balance between Washington and Moscow in an attempt to restore France as an arbiter of world affairs.
Now as then, it is a doomed effort. As de Gaulle and other “middleman” Europeans discovered, the post-Napoleonic system depended on shared values and carefully balanced interests. As was the case with the Soviet Union, there is no indication that China—or Russia and Iran, its closest strategic partners—shares any values prevailing in the West or has any reason to moderate its conduct to balance its interests to guarantee world peace. There is, however, every indication that Beijing and its allies benefit from and therefore seek to undermine Western unity while advancing their own aggrandizement at the expense of Western values and interests. In a zero-sum world, French and broader European elites will have to decide whether they want to cultivate a fleeting but powerfully nostalgic sense of grandeur or resist an aggressive power that seeks to disrupt, divide, rule, and perhaps ultimately destroy them.
Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.