Secretary of State Tony Blinken launches a delicate repair mission with France Monday, the first senior US official to visit Paris since the announcement of a US-led security pact blindsided Paris, costing it billions in lost defense sales and rupturing diplomatic ties with Washington.
The US has been scrambling to remedy the breach with France since the “AUKUS” security pact with the UK and Australia was unveiled in mid-September, leading Paris to recall its ambassador, denounce the Biden administration’s action as “brutal” and — despite President Joe Biden’s pledge to prioritize close coordination with allies — decry its treatment of allies as no less callous than the Trump administration’s.
Officials in Washington and Paris say there will be no quick fix to the diplomatic rift.
The French have said that restoring the relationship will take “time and action.” Biden administration officials have said that they are committed to that approach.
“We recognize this will take time and will take hard work, and it will need to be demonstrated not only in words but also in deeds,” State Department Assistant Secretary for Europe Karen Donfried said in a Friday phone call previewing the visit. But there is no “silver bullet” in terms of how to mend the rift, she said.
Softening the blow
France will lose about $65 billion from an existing deal to provide Australia with conventional, diesel-powered submarines because of the new deal Australia reached with the US and the UK.
The new UK-Australia-US pact involves cooperation on artificial intelligence, long-range strike capabilities and nuclear-powered submarines, all in response to China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. France, which has territories in the Pacific, and has increased military deployments in the region to counter China, was not only not informed of the alliance, but is now grappling with the lost contract and lost jobs that go along with it.
“Can the US financially soften the blow? This will be difficult. Could the US help identify another country to buy the French submarines?” said Heather Conley, a director for the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and international Studies, or CSIS.
French officials have not been publicly explicit about what they want the US to do to get the alliance back on track. Some say they are waiting to see what Blinken puts on the table.
“The ball is in the US court,” explained a senior French official ahead of Blinken’s visit. “We want to hear what the plan is from the US side to restore the quality of the transatlantic relationship. Since January, there has been a lot of rhetoric about friends and allies and, on a number of issues, the actions have not been much different than (Donald) Trump, so it will be: Are you genuinely interested in dealing with the EU and NATO and France in the way you deal with partners?”
The reception Blinken gets in Paris is expected to be a stark contrast to the warm welcome he received in France just months ago. Blinken will meet Tuesday with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who called the new UK-Australia-US partnership a “stab in the back.”
Blinken and LeDrian have already met once over the fallout from the AUKUS deal, holding talks on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September.
The top US diplomat, who is officially in Paris to chair a meeting of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development this week, is the ideal envoy for the trip.
Blinken, who speaks fluent French, has a personal bond with the French capital that could slightly warm the cool reception he is expected to receive. He spent much of his childhood in Paris and has called the city his “second home.” French officials who have known Blinken for decades say he is the right person to be tasked with mending the relationship.
Still, Blinken has the tall task of figuring out what the French want and what the Biden administration can do. US officials have yet to specify what the US could offer or put a timeline on when it would deliver.
“Out of these conversations need to come concrete action,” Donfried said of Blinken’s meetings, adding that it will take hard work to recover the relationship. “I do believe it will be those concrete deeds and actions that rebuild the trust.”
Fueling the fire
Blinken is expected to discuss US support for France’s counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel and deepening cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, among other issues, Donfried told reporters. He is also expected to begin planning for a meeting between Biden and President Emmanuel Macron next month.
But the rift is being fueled by a number of factors, among them domestic politics and the shock of dashed expectations.
Biden had made the rebuilding and strengthening of alliances, particularly in Europe, a central pillar of his foreign policy, in a deliberate contrast to former President Donald Trump. In France, many officials saw Biden’s appointment of two high-level Francophiles — Blinken and climate envoy John Kerry — as a sign that Paris would enjoy special regard in Washington.
But French officials say they had no indication the AUKUS announcement was coming, even as high-level meetings between the US and France took place over the last few months.
Now, Donfried said, the French feel that trust has been “disturbed,” and the US needs to “make sure trust is there.”
And with the French presidential election coming up next year, domestic politics could also complicate any solution. Conley, of CSIS, said public reaction to Blinken’s bridge-building trip will be an important indicator.
“How long the repercussions of this crisis will last is unknowable,” Conley said. “If the French government receives clear commitments on issues of importance to it and the public responds positively, bilateral tensions may subside. But if this issue continues to impact French public opinion and French presidential candidates continue to use ‘the great humiliation’ as an issue against Macron, then the problem will persist.”
“It will be important to see how public opinion responds to Secretary Blinken’s visit and if it is strongly against the US, we will know that the bilateral crisis will be around for a while,” Conley said.
Blinken will be building on initial efforts to smooth out the relationship that began quickly after news of the AUKUS submarine deal broke on September 15.
Biden spoke with Macron on September 22 and appeared to acknowledge missteps in the US approach to the talks. A joint statement issued after the call said Macron and Biden “agreed that the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners.”
France’s ambassador to the US, Philippe Etienne, returned to Washington after being dramatically recalled to Paris for consultations and met with national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Thursday, then with Blinken on Friday to discuss the way forward.
Blinken will be accompanied on is trip to Paris, which runs through Wednesday, by climate envoy Kerry, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and other US officials.
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