Subterranean Machinations and Franco-American Relations


Living through the latest “bump in the road” in Franco-American relations has stirred me to venture into writing a commentary with a different twist than has been my usual pattern. I don’t mean to ignore my ongoing preoccupation with advocating vaccine equity. – nor my longer lasting and well established preoccupation in support of multi-stakeholder collaboration.  In the context of this latest “bump”, however, the commentary has to start with some wishful thinking about broader geopolitical issues like military alliances or trade agreements or peace treaties – issues that are less conducive to a multi-stakeholder approach. That is to say, they are more in the realm of traditional inter-governmental relations in the control of national governments, whether the policy deliberations are conducted multilaterally or unilaterally. And thus, we start here, not so coincidentally, with the commemoration of a military battle and segue from that to a commentary on the strategic positioning of major countries – nation-states, governments and all that – before it gets back to vaccine equity or multi-stakeholderism. Bear with me on this journey in search of renewed hope for these two preoccupations of mine.

Commemorating a 1781 Naval Battle

Imagine my surprise one recent morning when I opened up my tablet with my first cup of coffee – leisurely reading the news on the Internet (well past relying on that daily newspaper that used to be delivered each morning rolled up in a plastic bag on my doorstep), -Catching me by surprise was the news that a gala reception had been cancelled for that very evening, 17 September 2021, at the French Embassy in Washington, DC.  I read further into the news account that the reception had been intended to be the central event for celebrating the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes (more on that later). Having long ago moved away from the frenetic and competitive interplay of politics with diplomacy in the social calendar of a lobbyist in Washington, DC, I did not regret that this particular reception had not made it onto my social calendar.

I was struck, however, by the thematic parallel of the event to a similar event involving the same Battle of the Capes that I did have on my social calendar right here in Grasse!  Of course, the controversy that triggered the cancellation in Washington, DC had nothing to do with the Battle of the Capes, but the common theme of the two events does serve as a useful link for me to express my personal concerns about the seriousness of the current controversy.

First, I would like to say that I was relieved that the commemoration of the Battle of the Capes here in Grasse was not cancelled. I was worried about this, and I fully understood that  the bumbling of American foreign policy that triggered the French response needed to be taken more seriously than the Americans seemed to recognize. The bumbling, in relation to the announcement on 16 September of a new military alliance between the US, the UK and Australia (the AUKUS Alliance), had to do with the failure to include in – or even, apparently, to alert the French about –  American negotiations with Australia and Britain on this new Indo-Pacific alliance. Incredibly, it seems that the French only learned about it by reading about it in  the news. on the very day it was announced!  Not only was this a significant oversight of diplomatic rules for collaboration with allies, but it also had a direct bearing on a Franco-Australian diesel-powered submarine contract, which the Australians abruptly cancelled in exchange for a new American and British contract with the Australians for nuclear-powered submarines!

The French responded with statements from its foreign and defense ministers calling the announcement a “stab in the back” and even accusing President Biden of acting just like his predecessor President Trump. Most seriously, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian officially withdrew their ambassadors to Washington, DC and Canberra (but not London), something that had never been done before with such close allies. The media and the think tanks were abuzz with opinions about how this could be a major turning point in Franco-American and even Euro-American relations. And the spillover significance of the French cancellation of a gala celebration for the French role in the Battle of the Capes did connect all of this to our personal social calendar in Grasse.

We were relieved to verify that the Grasse event was not cancelled. And on a very windy Sunday morning, we joined local dignitaries (and American representatives) in the commemoration  here in Grasse of the hometown hero, the  Admiral de Grasse, who just happened to be the commander of the French naval forces in the battle in 1781 that helped end the American War of Independence.  I don’t need to dwell on this here, just to note that it gave me a local perspective to the significance of Framco-American relations with a uniquely military – indeed a naval – strategic twist. that dates way back to the 18th century.  See the separate musings and photo collection on the Villa Ndio website for further reflections on this annual event (“Grasse Naval Day”) – and on the significant role of the Admiral de Grasse in American history.

The Biden Blunder

Meanwhile, it is encouraging that the diplomatic spat has had a modicum of resolution with a call between President Biden and President Macron a week later on September 23.  A joint statement was issued to acknowledge that prior US consultations with France on the AUKUS alliance would have been beneficial. The statement also suggests that some efforts could be made to accommodate the French loss of the contract it had signed  in 2016 for the delivery of diesel-powered submarines to Australia. It also recognized French interest in strengthening the European strategic position.  Nonetheless, the blunder – and I do call it a blunder – by the Biden Administration was to ignore consultations with its European allies (not just the French) on this significant US pivot to Asia in a strengthened Indo-Pacific military strategy.

What the blunder represents, in my view, is an inherent American characteristic of unilateral action in foreign policy, even where there is an  announced intent to support multilateral action.  As commentators like Fareed Zakaria have asserted, this is no different in effect from the unilateralism of President Trump. Indeed it is even more shocking, given the multilateral cloak that President Biden publicly embraced at the start of his administration.

But it also reflects a fundamental movement in American strategic policy away from Europe and toward Asia (i.e. China). Besides the challenge of allies like France having to live with the inherent unilateralism of American foreign policy, then, the  AUKUS alliance stimulates further reflections on both the American role in working with Europe (and France) and the French (and European) role on working with the US in the Indo-Pacific. And finally, it really does alter my appreciation for finding new ways to invigorate things like global vaccine equity and opportunities for multi-stakeholder collaboration.  Yes, yes, I do want to tie all of this back to that!

Strategic Implications in the Current Controversy: for Multilateralism

Numerous media sources have reported on the obvious snub by President Biden of an important European ally and have linked it to disgruntlement at the way he ordered the unilateral and abrupt withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan in August. It is also linked to the  delay by the Biden administration in  opening up trans-Atlantic travel, long after the EU had cleared the way for Americans to come to Europe as early as June of this year. And when the White House did finally announce lifting the travel ban on September 24 (to go into effect in early November,) it was in itself another surprise announcement. It was as though this was being tossed out as part of an apology for the oversight – a gesture with immediate value when nothing else could be done quite as quickly to make up for the damage of a lost contract and lost pride.

President Trump’s penchant for unilateral  pronouncements was something that President Biden was expected to swiftly reverse with a renewed embrace of multilateralism.  But it is only because Trump was so outrageously bad that we tend to forget the tendency for American foreign policy to be unilaterally promulgated.. Many are the talking heads and gurus of American foreign policy who have lamented the actions, like the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, as a disappointing disregard for allied collaboration. Even I thought it was a major blunder, not only because of the sudden disintegration of any resistance to the Taliban but also because it had clearly caught American allies off guard. But in retrospect, and especially after the surprising announcement of the AUKUS alliance, I can only shake my head with regret that Biden had once ignored the principle of multilateralism.

I do have my own opinion about this. Having served as the top-ranking American at the International Labor Organization for several years and then leading or participating in several US-government funded projects overseas, I have been proud of American support for workers’ rights, human rights, gender equality, poverty eradication and democratic values. But I have also been a frequent critic of American foreign policy in other areas – the Vietnam War, the undercover interventions over the years in  Iran or Chile or Central America, the failure to intervene in Rwanda, the invasion of Iraq, or the mess in Syria, just to mention a few very scattered examples.  I have sympathy for the many well-intentioned friends and relatives who have had to justify American policy in these areas. And I am glad that I never pursued a career in American foreign policy, even though I did serve as a White House Fellow for a year (in 1979-80) and thus was a federal government employee albeit in a domestic policy position.

My own personal observations of American foreign policy, other than that year as a White House Fellow, are related to the post-Cold War setting of the 1990s and the decades since then.  At first, I was at the ILO and followed closely the positioning of American policy in its governance after the heydays of supporting Solidarity and the end of apartheid. After that, in the next two decades, I worked with US officials on US-government funded projects in association with the ILO, the WHO, the WTO and the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement.  What I regularly observed is that the American representatives tended to avoid taking a position on controversial issues until at least some of the other countries’ representatives had spoken. Then they would announce  the American statement, which was usually quite different from anyone else’s.

I would often ask myself – and them – why they didn’t try to mobilize others to go along with their position. But it seemed as if their instructions from the capital were simply to state the American position.  Now it may well be that others behind the scenes and higher up in the political hierarchy were the real negotiators. Nonetheless, there was quite an impression of staking out the US position and expecting others to come around to it rather than any sign of searching for a consensus. One might even infer from these actions that the US was no longer actively engaged in mobilizing others to work with the US against a common enemy (communism). At the end of the decade, one might even suggest that the fiasco of the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle was intentionally shut down by President Bill Clinton’s speech announcing (unilaterally and without alerting the EU or any other allies) the US support for linking trade with workers’ rights.

Having seen this happen many a time, I have come around to the hypothesis that America as the sole superpower in those years was so big that it couldn’t really be a facilitator of consensus building.  For one, there was no common enemy to mobilize others against. But more to the point, the US did have to articulate its own national interests, even if they were “enlightened” national interests for the common good.  And yet, as a superpower, it could not justify actively imposing its position on others. These “others”, instead, needed to find paths to compatibility with the American position. This did not mean giving in to the American position, but it did mean focusing on ways that these interests could be aligned – without the US itself identifying where these shared interests were located.

These are observations based on personal experiences with US activities in multilateral institutions. Obviously, they were premised on an American commitment to multilateralism on socio-economic issues, even where their actions appeared to be rather unilateral,   I would only surmise that American military strategy has been similar – unilaterally driven and only then oriented to mobilizing multilateral support (as in the Iraq invasion of 2003). So the disgruntlement among allies that one sees in the Afghan situation or in the AUKUS announcement are part of the same conundrum.

On the Afghan mess, one sees a defensiveness from the Americans about their actions and a claim of advance notice to the NATO leadership. And on the exclusion of the French on the AUKUS negotiations, there isn’t so much a defensiveness as there is an implicit recognition that the French were intentionally not included.  This was, after all, not anything to do with American policy in Europe  – and had everything to do with American policy toward  the not-mentioned China, Furthermore, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s longstanding familiarity with the French, notwithstanding any naivete on the part of President Biden, would suggest that the US knew what they were doing.

Well, it constituted deliberate disregard of an ally, if not  a display of outright unilateralism.  Commentators have categorized it as an sign of the  “America first” mentality that is showing itself in President Biden’s foreign policy decisions – and I would personally relate it to a pattern of post-Cold War unilateralism in American foreign policy.  In that respect, the presumption of expecting something different, something truly multilateral AND multi-stakeholder in matters like the pandemic starts to appear truly presumptuous!

Strategic Implications for French (and European) Options Going Forward in the Indo-Pacific

Before getting to that, however, the strategic implications of the new AUKUS alliance are more far-reaching than this lamentation on American unilateralism.  Looking at this from the French perspective, there is both the question of aligning French interests with an American pivot to the Indo-Pacific region and the related question of what this means for Franco-American relations in Europe. I will touch on both of these issues before moving back to my pandemic and multi-stakeholder preoccupations.

The loss of a multi-billion Euro/dollar contract with the Australians for a bunch of sophisticated but diesel-powered submarines is in itself not a reason for the French to stay out of any Indo-Pacific military realignment. Over a million and a half French citizens live in this region, and the French have a continuing interest in whatever military actions may be necessary to ensure a rules based international order in the region. This obviously means aligning French military interests with the AUKUS alliance –  against China but without taking too strong an anti-Chinese stance. Such a nuanced approach clearly fits in with the new European Indo-Pacific strategy that happened to have been announced by EU leaders on the same day as the AUKUS announcement was catching everyone by surprise.

Beyond this, there are more significant nuances. The US under President Biden is clearly reaching out to a broader non-military alignment with India, Japan and Australia – the “Quad” as it has come to be known. I recall writing about the first Biden-convened meeting of this group just a few months ago. The big announcement then was an Asia-specific commitment among the four to accelerate Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing and distribution – in Asia.  My assessment then was that this was yet another variation of vaccine nationalism since it had nothing to do with the multi-stakeholder COVAX Facility.  And while the same four heads of state met for a second time in September, this time in person, the non-military focus of this cluster made it less disturbing for Franco-American or more broadly trans-Atlantic relations. As for my preoccupation with multi-stakeholderism, well, the group’s statement did give lip service to the COVAX Facility without announcing any new initiatives there, and other projects involving infrastructure, cypersecurity and even academic fellowships did not touch on it, either.

The French – and the Europeans – meanwhile, are being somewhat less confrontational with China. There might still be a lot of lively debate going on within EU members about a common policy, but there seems to be more of a consensus for Europe to act independently of the  US-China confrontation on such things as trade or climate change – or the pandemic! French pronouncements since the AUKUS debacle have regularly reaffirmed a three-pronged approach for relations with China – areas where they can cooperate (climate change and COVID-19), areas where they are competitors (IP, trade, WTO reform, development policy) and areas where they are opposed (the military angle).

It’s not entirely clear what is meant by a competitive approach in the middle, since the EU did sign a major trade agreement with China in December. This was done in spite of President-elect Biden’s request that they postpone signing this agreement, and it was mostly the Germans with French backing who decided to move it along. The French had, as I recall, indicated that it would not be going into effect until early 2022, when the EU would be operating under the French presidency. The implication here was that it could be significantly modified at that time. So why not go ahead with it?  Although the coalition-building for a new government in Germany may lean more towards confrontation with China, it is clear that French, German and perhaps overall EU interests will move policies further in the direction of a multi-tiered approach to China.

Strategic Implications for  French (and European) Options Going Forward in or for Europe

Much is being made of French ambivalence regarding NATO.  I am aware that the historians and other academic commentators have widely recognized NATO  as the most successful military alliance in history, and needs to be maintained, both from a US perspective and a European perspective. However, its future standing as an alliance is very much affected by the American pivot to Asia. True, this pivot doesn’t seem to mean any reduction in American resources committed to NATO or to Europe. Even the French, who have been in and out of NATO, have reaffirmed their continued membership there. They’re just looking for – how is the wording carefully crafted? For “strategic autonomy” or is it really something more like “strategic independence”?

The efforts by the Biden Administration to make up for the diplomatic and strategic implications of the AUKUS announcement are now catching widespread media attention, with both Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reaching out to French leaders in search of warming up the relationship. Both NATO and the OECD are the multilateral meetings for their official presence in Europe, even though their  French discussions are clearly bilateral. Nothing specific seems to be coming of this just yet, but it would seem that they are merely setting the stage for President Biden’s anticipated one-on-one with President Macron later in the month – again, interestingly enough, in the context of another multilateral gathering of the G-20 heads of state under the Italian presidency, scheduled for 30 to 31 October 2021 in Rome.

Whatever the French game might be in building support for  an independent or autonomous or parallel or complementary European military force, I believe that there are plenty of distractions to keep this from being acted  upon in the near future.. The coalition-building effort for a new leadership in Germany, domestic political skirmishes in France ahead of the presidential and assembly elections there in 2022, Brexit tensions, right-wing troublemakers in Poland and Hungary, and even Italian and Spanish election uncertainties are all distractions. And, furthermore, the issues that are likely to command immediate attention are still largely pandemic-related, although climate change, corporate taxation, Internet governance and other trade and technology issues are also competing for our attention!  Of course, these are all important issues – especially President Putin’s energy games with the new gas pipeline into Europe – but I can also argue here that the pandemic – and pandemic recovery – are still at the top of our priorities.

Back to the Pandemic and Multi-Stakeholderism

That brings me back to my two preoccupations – the pandemic and multi-stakeholderism. The series of commentaries I have been writing about the pandemic has targeted the remarkable multi-stakeholder collaboration at the global level that led to the ground-breaking effort to bring about an equitable sharing of COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX Facility.  I deeply regret that I was wrong about its potential to replace vaccine nationalism.  I had hoped that the Biden Administration would reverse the unilateralism and America First mentality of the Trump Administration and that the US would then join with the European Union, France and Germany in support of this visionary effort.

Not only did it envision the kind of global collaboration that was essential to control the pandemic. But it was driven by a collaboration between the EU, these governments and a variety of non-state actors, including but not limited to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, based on a multi-stakeholder kind of governance at the global level.  Perhaps I was naive. Skeptics certainly have pointed out that the early support from the EU, France and Germany fell prey to both EU and national priorities for vaccine distribution, even before the Biden Administration could reverse the US position. But at least they were articulating a sharing strategy that the US did not embrace. Disappointingly, the Biden Administration prioritized vaccine distribution for Americans first and only when that was taken care of, pledging to distribute any surplus overseas – and then not exclusively through the COVAX Facility.,

Although President Biden did deliver substantial financial support to the Facility early on, it was only in a setting where most available doses had already been purchased for national distributions. Even when he promised to donate half a billion doses at the G-7 summit in June, the follow-up was dismal. It seems that at the latest pledging summit, orchestrated directly by the US this time in September, President Biden admitted that only some 79 million doses of the pledged amount had actually been distributed. At that September summit, he even pledged to deliver another 500 million doses – as did the European Union. As for the COVAX Facility, their daily updates have shown up to 311 million doses distributed to 143 countries (as of 7 October 2021), with a hoped-for target of 1.2 billion doses by the end of the year.

One can throw around lots of numbers – and they change day to day – but also one sees different figures from different data sources. Suffice it for now to say that Dr. Tedros at the WHO and Secretary General Guterres at the UN are urging 40 per cent coverage for each country by the end of 2021 (i.e. 2 billion for the lower income countries) and 70% by mid-2022.  They have been joined by the Multilateral Leaders Task Force on Scaling Up COVID-19 Tools. However, this 2 billion target is not expected to be reached until the first quarter of 2021 – unless major changes are made in the distribution channels.

The redistribution of available vaccines, however, has now been supplemented with extensive maneuvering at the WHO and WTO to mobilize technology transfer and other tools to expand manufacturing capacity. At the WTO Public Forum (30 September to 4 October 2021), this was featured in competing panels – some in favor of transferring technology but also intellectual property rights and others adamantly opposed. Related to this, furthermore, is  a post-pandemic project. touted by Vice President Kamala Harris at the September summit, to establish a larger and new “Financial Intermediary Facility” at the World Bank. This new entity would have a proposed budget of $10 billion a year, to manage global distribution of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics in future pandemics. So much for the COVAX Facility! Or will it be absorbed into this?

The World Bank and IMF are holding their annual meetings on 11 to 18 October in Washington,  DC, with this FIF one of the issues they will be considering. And then later in the month on 30 and 31 October, there is the G-20 Summit in Rome. I can only hope that the Bank and Fund meetings and the G-20 Summit – and any Franco-American announcements coming out of their much-hyped one-on-one reconciliation – will finally produce a return to the vision of which the COVAX Facility was a key part way back in April and May of 2020.

The issues involve not only a matter of the equitable distribution of vaccines in a global pandemic but also a challenge to the ways that such an equitable distribution can be guaranteed. Expanding manufacturing capacity around the world is seen as a necessity to produce the huge quantities of vaccines that this pandemic tells us we will need now and in the future. It is also  a necessity to have a wider spread in the geographic capacity for manufacturing these products  – and wider collaboration in the complex supply chains for the many ingredients that are needed to bring this pandemic under control and to prevent future ones from getting out of hand the way this one did.

Yes, a global effort is needed – and the new FIF might just be built on the COVAX Facility model. Moving it to a World Bank context (where the US has a dominant role) does imply a different governance oversight, based on weighted voting, than the WHO oversight. Of course, the COVAX Facility is certainly different in its own governance structure – with a certain degree of weighted voting plus non-state actors in the mix. But  I will be very interested in how this is handled at the new FIF, especially on the non-state-actor front. Early indications are that there is some receptivity to this, The COVAX Facility has had difficulties fulfilling its mission, largely because the US and others bought up the available vaccines for themselves before committing to a sharing formula, but there might be hope for a speeding up of corrective measures in the coming weeks and months AND a new framework for multi-stakeholder collaboration in the future.

What does this have to do with naval battles and Franco-American relations?  Well, it shows that we are still operating in a primarily intergovernmental world. Both France and the United States will be important players in promoting the values of liberty and equality that brought them together over 240 years ago. Their respect for these values does mean that they are the right players to be part of an overall global effort to  facilitate participatory processes for truly constructive collaboration. This is not to ignore the importance of other actors (or the importance of traditional military alliances, I suppose). It’s just to reaffirm that I am happy to be an American living in France!





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