As a middling power in an evolving world, France no longer has the luxury to bank on the strength of old friendships.
The UK, US, and Australia have announced a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific, in what’s seen as an effort to counter China. It will let Australia build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time, using technology provided by the US. The Aukus pact, which will also cover AI and other technologies, is one of the countries’ biggest defense partnerships in decades. The big loser is the French government, which since 2016 had been negotiating with Australia for the production of a conventional Australian submarine to replace its diesel-electric subs.
For years, Australian politicians would argue that they do not have to decide between the US and China and could develop their economic ties with both. For instance, China is its biggest trade partner. This idea that Australia could co-exist with both superpowers without the need to choose a side, seems to have ended with the new Aukus pact. Australia has seen that its security needs are better covered if they strengthen their alliance with the US and the UK at the expense of its economic interests. As a member of the Five Eyes, no one would expect Australia to align with China against the US.
This development was foreseen by the prominent realist scholar John Mearsheimer who argued during a conference in 2019 that the security needs of Australia would triumph over its economic interests in an era of growing American-Chinese competition. Years later, the Australian government did as he predicted.
Australia’s realist approach required it to build up strong alliances. The only option in this regard was to align with the US and the UK. France as a middling power cannot offer what Australia needs.
French military presence in the Indo-Pacific region is limited, its military power is limited, its economic power is limited and more importantly, its trustworthiness is limited. Australia most likely followed how France actively torpedoed the NATO alliance, questioned its legitimacy, and tried to divide NATO from within by cozying up to Russia.
The Australian government seems to remember that France described NATO as brain-dead. So why should Australia ally with France while it cannot be trusted in the alliance it already is a part of?
States will always lean towards self-interest and have little regard for the feelings of other allied nations. The current international system requires states to make alliances in line with their self-interests. Australia put its self-interest first and did what it had to do and there is nothing France can do about it. France may be visibly upset, but this is a cost that Australia, the US and the UK are ready to take.
The order in the Indo-Pacific has entered the tendency towards great power competition and the AUKUS pact seems to be a first alliance formation to meet the necessities of the new era. While many compare the emerging system to the Cold War, the dynamics of it might be different and more regional.
For instance, the European continent, the Middle East, and Central Asia appear to have a stronger tendency towards a multi-polar order and it has yet to be seen how and if these two orders in the Indo-Pacific and the rest will co-exist.
Therefore, the hysteria in Paris about the developments in the Indo-Pacific region does not fit with the realities of current times. Moreover, France has to be realistic and put its self-interest upfront as well. The continuous push by France for European autonomy in NATO and a European army is not realistic. It is a waste of time. Instead of wasting time, Paris has to move mentally into the 21st century. France is only a shadow of its past. The days of the French Empire are long gone and the French capabilities cannot balance AUKUS, China, or Russia.
If France wants to maximise its interests in the Indo-Pacific region and minimise the threats. it has to reassess its position in the international system. As a middling power, the French interest in the Indo-Pacific region is best secured in alliance with the US and the UK. Instead of trying to gain autonomy, the French have to bandwagon with the Anglo-Saxons and accept a new reality. Otherwise, the French role in the international system will decrease increasingly, and the loss of a $36 billion contract might just be the beginning.
While the French interest in the Indo-Pacific might be best served by teaming up with the US and the UK, the situation in Europe and the Middle East appears to be similar. As a European army is a pipe dream, the security needs of France are best secured within NATO. Otherwise, without the US, the UK, and Turkey, the European continent is not capable of securing its interest.
Therefore, France has to try to strengthen NATO and respect the self-interest of each state within NATO. Only if the alliance respects the national security threat perception of each member, a balancing act between the two emerging international orders in the Indo-Pacific and the rest might be established. Such a balance might be the best outcome, France could achieve.