September 23

By Paul D. Shinkman

President Joe Biden called his French counterpart Emanuel Macron on Wednesday and appeared to apologize for not offering more forewarning about Australia’s contentious decision to scrap a deal with France and buy American nuclear submarine technology instead.

A readout issued by both the White House and the Elysee confirmed Biden initiated the call in which the two leaders “agreed that the situation would have benefitted from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners.

“President Biden conveyed his ongoing commitment in that regard,” it added.

The seemingly esoteric maritime deal – announced as a part of a new security arrangement between Australia, the U.S. and the U.K. known as AUKUS – made waves internationally following France’s outrage at what it considered a surprise. Its government immediately canceled a series of high-profile events in the U.S. and recalled its ambassadors to both Washington and Canberra.

Though not specified as such, AUKUS’ creation is clearly designed to counter China’s economic influence and aggressive behavior in its neighborhood. Administration officials routinely boast of America’s close network of allies in Europe and elsewhere as the greatest tool to achieve this goal.

Despite the spat between two of the world’s most consequential allies, magnified by Macron’s decision to skip the U.N. General Assembly this week, the two leaders appeared to begin to mend relations on Wednesday, with Macron announcing the planned return of the ambassadors, new high-level talks “for ensuring confidence” and “to reach shared understandings” and a meeting between the two leaders in Europe at the end of next month.

“President Biden reaffirms the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, including in the framework of the European Union’s recently published strategy for the Indo-Pacific,” the joint statement read. “The United States also recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO.”

When asked, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki would not say that Wednesday’s conversation amounted to an explicit apology by Biden.

“He acknowledged that there could have been greater consultation,” Psaki said. She referred to the conversation as “a friendly call.”

When pressed, she added, “There was agreement that we wanted to move forward in our relationship.”

The latest dust-up comes as the Biden administration eagerly tries to shift its foreign policy away from 20 years of militaristic focus on the Middle East in favor of a heavy emphasis on diplomacy and greater focus on the threats and challenges China poses. The process has created headaches for the White House, particularly the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and ongoing criticism that Biden has not taken an adequately hard-line regarding China, particularly compared to his predecessor Donald Trump’s more bellicose approach.

Australia had brokered a roughly $66 billion deal with France in 2016 for a new fleet of diesel submarines. Its leaders have subsequently explained that technology does not match its security needs for the coming decades.