Many believed that a Biden presidency would mean a return to appreciative and cooperative relations between the United States and its allies and partners around the world. France certainly did – before the United States and Britain scuttled a $ 66 billion French conventional submarine deal with Australia in order to sell submarines themselves to nuclear propulsion on land.
To be fair to the Australians, the technical specifications of the US-UK submarines are higher than those included in the 2016 contract with France. Moreover, the price increase and the delay in the initial deal with Paris also contributed to Australia’s decision to withdraw from the deal.
But the manner in which the new AUKUS deal was unveiled sparked outrage and a sense of betrayal on the part of the French government. According to the press, US officials only gave their French counterparts a few hours in advance before the announcement was made public. “A knife in the back” is how a French official described the decision. French President Emmanuel Macron went so far as to recall in reaction the ambassadors of France to the United States and Australia. And it all happened in the tailwind of the disappointing U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which also raised questions about America’s commitment to its allies.
The botched diplomacy surrounding these events is disheartening, but is it surprising? Not for us. Our recent research shows that for those who shape and influence U.S. foreign policy, treaty allies aren’t always as important a factor as we think. In fact, we find that, depending on the circumstances, American foreign policy experts may view treaty allies as superfluous. America’s recent behavior indicates that âthe allyâ is in the eye of the beholder – and sometimes it comes to the detriment of one ally rather than another.
Allies matter, but not always
How could an agreement on submarines open such a wide breach in US-French relations? Our recent experience of investigating American foreign policy experts provides an answer to this question.
Between October and December 2020, we surveyed nearly 700 respondents who work in Congress, various federal agencies engaged in international affairs, foreign policy think tanks, and American universities as scholars in international relations. . We first wanted to know if respondents would change their political preferences based on how exactly we described the counterpart the United States was engaging with.
To capture these preferences, we asked respondents whether they would favor or oppose their international counterparts who are fighting American adversaries in the Middle East. Respondents were given one of four scenarios to characterize the counterpart: ally by treaty, non-ally by treaty, non-state actor or simply âactorâ. We have deliberately kept opponents and counterparts anonymous so as not to influence our respondents.
Our results show that US foreign policy elites view conventional alliances as the most important type of relationship. Although our wording of the question remained exactly the same, the way we described the counterpart generated varying degrees of support from respondents. Of those polled who were asked about an âally by treaty,â 80% said they would be in favor of the United States supporting their counterparts who are battling adversaries in the Middle East. When asked about an âally unrelated to treaties,â support fell to 66%.
When allies don’t matter
In a second experiment, we examined whether respondents would prioritize America’s relationship with its treaty allies. So we first randomly presented them with one of the four scenarios. The reference group received the following question: âThere have been discussions in the United States about supporting foreign actors to advance American security interests abroad. Are you in favor or against the continuation of such initiatives by the United States? “
A second scenario included the following note: “Some treaty allies, however, criticize these initiatives.” We expected to find less support for the proposed action if some treaty allies opposed it. But there were no statistical differences between the scenarios that included the note that treaty allies criticized the initiatives and those that did not, however we characterize the foreign actor. In other words, the position of the treaty allies did not matter to our respondents once they were told that U.S. security interests abroad were at stake.
Putting the UKUS Brouhaha in perspective
To borrow a line from âCool Hand Luke,â âWhat we have here is a lack of communication. It appears that there has indeed been a communication breakdown between the United States, Australia and France regarding the submarine deal. While the situational lens could have been better handled, this data highlights the tradeoffs policy experts make in real life situations. Our research confirms the importance of treaty allies to US foreign policy experts. It also shows that this support is conditional. National security interests remain the top priority for these foreign policy experts. As a result, they believe that the allies of the treaty can be sidelined to achieve them.
The United States has made similar choices in the past. Under the Trump administration, the United States joined forces with Kurdish armed groups in Syria to fight against Islamic State. The move came at the expense of Turkey, a longtime NATO ally, which has waged its own fight against Kurdish militants in the region for decades. And when the United States announced its intention to withdraw from Syria in October 2019, many in Washington denounced the move, arguing that the United States was abandoning its “Syrian Kurdish allies.” This choice of words, of course, was hardly welcome in Ankara.
To be fair, Washington’s relationship with Turkey has been in shambles for some time (the S-400s, do you mind?). This allows the United States to prioritize virtually any other interest rather than preserving its alliance with Ankara. The relationship with France, however, is based not only on treaty obligations, but also on shared goals and values. This is precisely why the AUKUS agreement puts relations between the United States and France in a difficult situation.
But the United States has ample opportunity to contain the damage. Just as the prioritization of national security interests has prompted London, Canberra and Washington to each go their own way on which submarines are operating in the Pacific, leaving Macron raging at the Elysee Palace, she will also continue to lead the quartet together on the biggest questions of what these submarines are for.
On the one hand, Paris and Canberra have long collaborated on security issues in the Indo-Pacific, a region that France considers a priority area and at the “heart of a French vision for a stable multipolar order”. The numerous French territories scattered throughout this region constitute the second exclusive economic zone in the world and are home to 1.6 million French people. Although the French naval forces have recently increased the pace of their operations in the Indo-Pacific, France alone does not have the capacity to ensure the security of such a large geographical area. Consequently, the French strategy has focused on building security partnerships supporting various multilateral agreements in the region.
Despite the blow to French pride, the United States and Australia therefore remain essential partners of France in the Indo-Pacific. Shared national security interests make this cooperation essential for all parties, although the next rounds of meetings are likely to be less collegial than in the past.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and previously worked for fifteen years conducting overseas investigations for the US State Department. She tweets @RoguePollster.
Sibel Oktay is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Springfield and Senior Non-Resident Researcher in Public Opinion and Foreign Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She is the author of Governing Abroad: Coalition Politics and Foreign Policy in Europe (University of Michigan Press). She tweets @SibelOktay.
Paul Poast is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and Non-Resident Foreign Policy and Public Opinion Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. His most recent book is Arguing About Alliances: The Art of Agreement in Military-Pact Negotiations (Cornell University Press). He tweets @ProfPaulPoast.
Craig Kafura is Deputy Director of Public Opinion and Foreign Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Security Fellow of the Truman National Security Project, and 2021 US-Australia Next Generation Fellow with the Pacific Forum. He tweets @ckafura.
Image by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street