Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken participates in a Framework+UK meeting at Brussels, Belgium on April 14, 2021.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken participates in a Framework+UK meeting at Brussels, Belgium on April 14, 2021. State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha

Biden’s Best Chance to Get Back on Course with Europe

The president should send his best team to NATO and EU talks, find common ground on China, and repair the damage done by the AUKUS submarine deal.

The U.S.-UK-Australia pact to cooperate more closely on security in the Indo-Pacific, including the U.S. decision to sell nuclear submarines and share related technology with Australia, is a major step forward in enhancing security in the region. In addition to expanding Australia’s capabilities, the arrangement will also lead to a greater U.S. and UK presence over the long haul.

Even so, the way the arrangement was handled — brutally undercutting the ongoing French negotiations with Australia, which were part of a French effort to expand its own presence in the Indo-Pacific — was an unforced error that will have serious long-term consequences. 

The goal of building a concerted U.S.-European strategy in Asia remains the right one, but the repair work will not be easy. President Joe Biden has called President Emmanuel Macron, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. But France will not be easily persuaded to tie its own interests in Asia to those of the United States while being excluded from AUKUS. 

The best chance to get back on to some parallel course with Europe will be for the United States to use the U.S.-EU China Dialogue and the process of revising NATO’s Strategic Concept proactively. America needs to send its most senior Asia policy officials and engage in a real and continuous dialogue with Europe aimed at identifying as many common actions as possible, even when we continue to have other core differences.

Building U.S.-European cooperation in confronting growing challenges from China has been a priority of the Biden administration from the very beginning — in technology, defending the global, liberal economic order, bolstering security in Asia, and challenging its influence using the Belt and Road Initiative. At the NATO Summit this year, leaders tasked the alliance to work more closely to produce a new Strategic Concept to face China and the new types of threats and challenges it represents. Two U.S. administration’s have urged European allies and partners to avoid Chinese 5G technology and forego Chinese-financed infrastructure projects.

Many allies have been taking the Biden administration seriously. Even France, which tends to be skeptical of expanding topics for NATO consultation, went along with the NATO decision and independently formed its own Indo-Pacific strategy, recognizing the growing challenges from China. Piece by piece, the opportunity for a more concerted U.S.-European approach to dealing with China was emerging. That opportunity now appears lost, at least for the time being.

French anger is not merely about the lost submarine sale. It is the way France was treated – without transparency, trust, consultation and respect, or as the Le Drian said, “a stab in the back.” This goes beyond any single issue and reinforces in France the view, always just under the surface since de Gaulle, that France must go it alone, America will always pursue its own interests, and fundamentally, America cannot be trusted.

It would not have been difficult for Australia and the United States to make the case for why U.S. nuclear-powered submarines are a more immediate and more powerful solution for Australia, and an overall enhancement of regional security. The French submarines on order were diesel-powered, still required further design work, were not likely to be ready for 15 years, and were well over budget. (Perhaps France could have offered nuclear-powered submarines, but that was not on the table at the time.) Compared to the French diesel submarines, the American subs are quieter, more capable, have longer range, and can be delivered on a shorter timeline.

It would also have been possible for America to reach out to France to make them part of a grander Indo-Pacific strategy, rather than opting for an Anglosphere solution that pushes France to the sidelines. That would still not have salvaged the French $60 billion submarine sale, but France could have been made a closer partner to the growing strategic political, military, and industrial cooperation in Asia in concert with the U.S., UK and Australia. Now it will be France that seeks to rally the European Union and continental members of NATO, to forge their own Indo-Pacific engagement – a mixture of cooperation and caution far different from the strategy America had wanted for Europe.

Most worrying, and something the Biden administration will no doubt move to fix right away, is a blind spot in the execution of policy, even when the policy choices are the right ones.  Whether it is the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the decision to waive sanctions on Nord Stream 2, or now the Aukus agreement, one may disagree, but at least they are defensible choices for the United States. The collateral damage, however, should have been avoided. 

Amb. Kurt Volker is distinguished fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Previously, he was U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations from 2017 to 2019, and U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009. Volker is currently managing director, international, and co-chair of the advisory board at BGR Group. He is also president and founder of Alliance Strategic Advisors, LLC. From 2012-2019, Volker was the founding executive director of The McCain Institute for International Leadership. 

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