Don’t Diss the French

The Washington consensus seems to be that AUKUS—the newly announced alliance among the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom—is a good thing. It is not simply a matter of diplomatic showmanship in the strategic contest with China, nor is it a mere success of industrial policy, although it might be both those things. By investing in U.S. and British nuclear submarine technology, the Australians are getting much greater capability than they would have with the French conventional submarines, including the ability to launch land attack missiles as well as all the advantages of unlimited cruising time and a deep industrial base to back them up. The truth is that the French deal never made great technical or political sense—either large conventional submarines from the Japanese or nuclear ones from the United States or the United Kingdom made much more.

French pique at these events, though understandable, went too far. Withdrawing ambassadors is the equivalent of stamping one’s foot and shaking one’s fist—neither a dignified posture. Sooner or later the ambassadors will return, and the deep intelligence and military ties among France, the United Kingdom, and the United States will continue.

But the overwrought nature of the French reaction should not lead U.S. observers to dismiss Paris and its concerns. France is one of two formidable European military powers. At roughly $55 billion, its defense budget almost equals that of the United Kingdom ($61 billion) and exceeds that of Germany ($51 billion). Its political and military leaders think globally and are willing to use their military when needed, as in the extended and costly French commitment in Africa. It maintains a significant military presence in the South Pacific and the Persian Gulf and as a result has some useful leverage in those areas.

And setting aside the spectacular blow up with the United States over the Iraq War, the fact is that the Franco-American strategic relationship, though rarely public, has been steady and productive—in Afghanistan, in the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program, and in the struggle with jihadist movements.

The sudden blowing up of the $66 billion Franco-Australian deal required deft U.S. diplomacy to cushion the blow; the Australians could not have done it on their own and perhaps were not inclined to. It is unfortunate that U.S. statecraft could not encompass this substantial strategic industrial achievement while sustaining an old and valuable relationship with a good, if prickly ally. It is much better to devise a diplomatic balm and administer it before delivering this kind of blow to a proud and friendly state.

Eliot A. Cohen is the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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