The Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Waller, a Collins-class diesel-electric submarine, is seen in Sydney Harbour on November 2, 2016. Photo: AFP / Peter Parks

Remember this phrase (Google it, if you must): Je m’en bats les couilles. This is in essence the message that President Joe Biden sent to President Emmanuel Macron of France, a country that is considered to be “America’s oldest ally.”

In the last several days, the Biden administration has found itself embroiled in a completely avoidable contretemps with Paris over a now scrapped multibillion-dollar defense contract between France and Australia. 

The rupture is significant in the annals of Franco-American relations, since it is the first time since 1778 that France has pulled its ambassador from the United States. And the fallout is unlikely to abate soon – which will have greater ramifications for the overall American alliance with France, the European Union, and NATO. In the end, China and Russia stand to benefit from this development.

Lacking all finesse

Fact is, the United States and the United Kingdom both needed to enhance their military relationships with Australia, the most powerful English-speaking democracy in the Indo-Pacific region.

Biden should be given credit for doing a truly monumental action, such as offering proprietary American nuclear submarine technology to Australia – something that Washington has not done for another country since 1958 – to create a strong military alliance aimed at containing China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific.

As former Australian government adviser Rohan Watt wrote recently, the US-UK-Australia nuclear submarine deal was a “victory for freedom and democracy.”

Yet at no point was it written that this alliance should have been created at the expense of democratic France. In France, Washington has a capable military partner – the strongest military on the European continent – that has, for the last several years, shouldered a great burden by battling against anti-American Islamists in Africa. Like the United States and Britain, France also has interests in the Indo-Pacific. 

The inartful deal

Five years ago, Australia wanted to enhance its submarine fleet. Its Collins-class diesel-powered submarines needed replacement. The French defense contractor Naval Group had been commissioned to replace Australia’s six Collins-class diesel subs with 12 French Barracuda-class diesel submarines.

According to Politico-EU, “Canberra [wanted] the French bid because of the ability to switch the Barracudas from diesel to nuclear power.” However, the deal was fraught with complications and tensions between the Australians and French, mainly because Naval Group was proving unable to meet the parameters of the contract inked in 2016. 

The deal was collapsing at least 15 months before the Americans and British stepped in. Beyond that, it was clear that what Australia’s leaders really wanted was not another set of diesel-powered submarines. They wanted nuclear-powered submarines. 

Generally quieter than their diesel counterparts, nuclear-powered submarines can stay submerged longer and can travel farther than the diesels can. Nuclear-powered subs are more sophisticated, too – especially the US Virginia-class or the UK’s Astute-class submarines (Australia is looking to buy one of these two classes of nuclear sub). 

Ultimately, however, if Australia is not intending for their submarines to carry nuclear warheads, a nuclear-powered submarine might not be worth the investment and time it will require of Australia – especially considering that Australia lacks the infrastructure needed to build and maintain a nuclear submarine fleet.

Still, interoperability is a lofty ambition for any country, such as Australia, seeking to create a new military alliance in its part of the world. Both the United States and Britain are worthy partners in this endeavor, too.

But France is also a viable partner. At no point did anyone in Canberra or Washington think to give their friends in Paris a heads-up of Australia’s coming abandonment of the French submarines in favor of Anglo-American ones. 

Was there truly nothing that the Biden administration could not offer as a consolation prize for Paris’ wounded ego? I thought the adults were in charge again in Washington!

Je m’en bats les couilles! 

According to global-affairs analyst Leon Hadar, after the rude way Paris and the rest of the European Union went behind America’s back in December 2020 to sign a historic bilateral trade deal with China – a slap in the face to the incoming Biden administration – President Biden needed to send a sharp message to his French interlocutors. But France, while a medium-sized country in the world system, is not without a bite. 

Losing Europe to win Australia?

Thanks to the horrendous way Australia, the US and the UK (now called AUKUS) handled the French, Washington can expect France to take a sharper turn away from America – at least for a while. 

First, France will likely seek greater accommodation with Beijing in response. Second, along with the Germans, Paris will attempt to move both itself and the EU into Russia’s desperate, waiting arms.

This might have been the reality no matter what transpired. But one thing is certain, the Biden administration’s actions with Australia did not help the situation. Biden’s indifference toward French interests has led to French indignation – and that could very well lead to a serious breakdown in the Euro-American alliance. 

The breaking of Franco-American relations over the Australian submarine deal might have just been the final incident, in a long line of incidents, that Europe’s leaders needed to take the final step in charting a new course away from Washington … and into the arms of the authoritarians in Eurasia’s heartland.

Thus the Sino-Russian dream of an anti-American Eurasian-wide alliance just might be closer to fruition. It might be gratifying for Washington to tell Paris Je m’en bats les couilles! But in the end, sadly, we Americans will pay for pushing the France out of our orbit. 

Brandon J Weichert

Brandon J Weichert is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower. He is a geopolitical analyst who manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right. His work appears regularly in The Washington Times and Real Clear Politics. Weichert is a former US congressional staffer who holds an MA in statecraft and national security affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, and is an associate member of New College, Oxford University.