Paris is furious at Washington because Australia scuttled a major naval arms deal with France in favor of America.
The blowup is quite instructive as far as the art of statecraft in general, and the relationship between Allied nations in particular.
This is not the first time the U.S. benefits where France first ventures.
In the Aussie imbroglio, the original deal envisioned equipping the Australian Navy with submarines, a contract worth over $66 billion. Before the arrangement fell apart Canberra had signaled its concerns about various technical problems plaguing the French offerings.
I'm sure much of it can be true.
But technical problems, even serious, usually do not make or break major arms deals between close allies. Political considerations are primary determinants in such cases.
For example, despite serious misgivings about operational ability of our F-35s, Poland acquired a fleet of them from the U.S. for $4.6 billion in 2020.
Since the Poles are members of the European Union, some expected them to buy Sweden’s Gripen or France’s Mirage. That would make total sense. That is the driving logic in Europe, for instance in the Finish-Latvian armored vehicle deal this year.
But Warsaw prefers Washington as an ally: this is a realistic calculation of forces.
Neither Stockholm nor Paris would move if Poland were invaded from the east or west.
The Poles have picked the Americans over their European allies before.
In 2015, Warsaw inked a contract with France for the H255M Caracal helicopters with a price tag of almost $4 billion. Nonetheless, a couple of years later the deal was nullified.
There were the usual Polish complaints about the poor technical reliability of the French machines and such. It was even reported that 75% of the Caracals in the French military were not operational at all. Perhaps that, indeed, was the case.
But the real reason was different. The U.S. is more powerful than France. Ultimately, Warsaw picked American-made helicopters. The mechanism here is quite revealing.
Poland wanted to acquire Patriot missiles. The Obama administration rejected the offer, but the Trump team obliged for $4.75 billion in 2018. The Polish had established their bona fides with the purchase of American helicopters earlier.
The Poles value the U.S. as a prime ally, but they also appreciate American investments in Poland: Black Hawks are now made in Mielec.
Now it should be obvious why the Aussies backtracked on the submarine deal.
Australia is one of the Five Eyes, along with the United States, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom. They are the Anglo-Saxon powers.
That is the inner ring. America is primus inter pares there.
Other allies are in the outer ring of the Western Alliance, most of them NATO members. They constitute a constellation of planets moving once closer to, at other times farther away from, the U.S.
Hierarchically, the Netherlands and Japan may be the closest to us. But we also increasingly count Poland in on NATO’s eastern flank. Germany’s relative position depends on the intensity of its Transatlanticism, which, regrettably, is on the wane at the moment.
France tended to stand aloof during the Cold War. Paris played independent, relying on its own force de frappe (force of dissuasion): nuclear weapons. The French even withdrew from NATO’s integrated command and expelled American military bases in 1966.
Yet, for all the Gaelic posturing, it was obvious to all that France was risking nothing: to occupy Paris the Soviets would have had to roll through Germany and the American forces there.
After the implosion of the USSR, the French returned to close collaboration with us (in particular following 9/11). But they continue to like to make a splash independently to recall their former glory.
The Australian gambit is an example of such a venture.
However, France is no longer an empire. Faced with the Chinese threat, the Aussies wisely decided to bank on the U.S. The contract was scrapped. The French threw a diplomatic and public relations hissy fit with German support.
Admittedly, the Biden administration handled the situation poorly.
Instead of humiliating France, it should financially back the sale of French submarines to Taiwan and Vietnam. Both need the hardware to protect them from China.
And a sale of French arms to Bejing’s would-be victims pulls Paris away from the Chinese orbit. The French have been too cozy there. They can’t have their cake and eat it too.
That’s integrated statecraft 101.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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