It’s been one of the biggest diplomatic gaffes of the nascent administration of President Joe Biden. And according to Biden himself, he didn’t even know it was happening.
And mind you, we’re not talking a mistake of omission — like neglecting to send congratulations to Germany’s likely new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, because Biden forgot Deutschland was having an election. (Stupid Apple calendar — making you manually add an alert to “German general election” to get reminded.)
This was a sin of commission, instead: During a joint media briefing with French President Emmanuel Macron in Rome on Friday, Biden admitted the way the United States went about the AUKUS submarine deal — in which the U.S. and the United Kingdom reached an agreement to supply Australia with nuclear submarines, thus canceling a deal Australia had to buy diesel submarines from France and doing it behind France’s back — was “clumsy.” This was in part, the president said, because he “was under the impression certain things had happened that hadn’t happened.”
Let me reiterate: The president of the United States of America, the guy in the buck-stops-here seat in the White House who has been talking ceaselessly about how “America is back at the table” geopolitically, is either admitting or falsely claiming that he didn’t know about aspects of a submarine deal that caused America’s oldest ally to recall its ambassador.
Reuters noted that during the event, Biden and Macron “shared warm words, and friendly body language.” The rapport and bonhomie led one reporter to ask if the relationship between the White House and the Fifth Republic had been repaired.
“You’re asking me?” Biden said. When it came out that, yes, indeed, they were, Biden didn’t answer the question but conceded or feigned a good deal of ignorance.
“Well, the answer is: I think what happened was — to use an English phrase, what we did was ‘clumsy.’ It was not done with a lot of grace. I was under the impression certain things had happened that hadn’t happened,” Biden said, according to a White House transcript.
“And — but I want to make it clear: France is an extremely, extremely valued partner — extremely — and a power in and of itself. And so, I don’t know any reason that — we have the same values.”
Biden is asked if the relationship between the U.S. and France is "repaired."
Biden blankly responds, "You asking me? … I was under the impression certain things had happened that hadn't happened." pic.twitter.com/7nXdkDxgYG
— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) October 29, 2021
Maybe this wasn’t as bad as it seemed: “What did you think had happened that had not happened?” the reporter asked next.
“I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not going through. I, honest to God, did not know you had not been,” Biden said.
“But having said that, look, there’s too much we have done together, suffered together, celebrated together, and valued together for anything to really break this up.”
Try that one on your wife after you do something divorce-worthy and see how that works.
There are only two reasons this is remotely believable. One is that the chief executive of our beloved nation is Joseph Robinette Biden and, while past performance isn’t indicative of future results, it can be very suggestive of it. The other is that John Kerry, the administration’s climate change envoy — and a fluent French speaker — previously gave a French media outlet roughly the same excuse for the president.
“[Biden] literally had not been aware of what had transpired,” Kerry told BFMTV in a sit-down interview earlier this month translated by Fox News.
“And I don’t want to go into the details of it, but suffice it to say that the president, my president, is very committed to strengthening the relationship and making sure that this is a small event of the past and moving on to the much more important future.”
Kerry went on to say that the administration had “a relationship with France that is so much bigger than this moment of what happened with respect to a lack of communication,” although he added there was an “understanding that we have so much to work on.”
“Our commitment … to our ability to work together is much, much stronger to any of these differences over the last few days,” he continued. “President Biden looks forward to meeting with President Macron and I’m absolutely confident that the bigger issues we have to work on, about nuclear weapons, about cyber warfare, about climate … we have a lot of work to do, and we can’t get lost in a momentary event that I think we will get past very quickly.”
Right. Don’t tell that to France, which recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia after the trilateral arms agreement was reached last month, calling the deal a “stab in the back.”
So it turns out John Kerry *wasn't* lying: Biden had absolutely no clue what was happening in his own administration. https://t.co/XCama0laev
— Jake Schneider (@jacobkschneider) October 29, 2021
“This extraordinary decision reflects the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on September 15 by Australia and the United States,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, according to CNN.
“The abandonment of the ocean-class submarine project that Australia and France had been working on since 2016 and the announcement of a new partnership with the United States aimed at studying the possibility of future cooperation on nuclear-powered submarines constitute unacceptable behavior among allies and partners; their consequences affect the very concept we have of our alliances, our partnerships, and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe.”
Macron was less dramatic than Le Drian when he spoke to reporters in Rome, where both leaders are for the G20 summit, but he wasn’t calling things “repaired” either. “Trust is like love: Declarations are good, but proof is better,” he told reporters.
The long-term strategic implications regarding the cost-benefit analysis of the AUKUS deal will long be debated, given that it isn’t just a matter of enriching U.S. and U.K. defense contractors at the expense of Gallic submarine-builders.
AUKUS may be a painful blow to French industry — their deal with Australia was worth $66 billion, per The New York Times. However, the nuclear-powered submarines Australia will receive under the arms agreement are harder to detect underwater than the conventionally powered subs France would have built for Australia.
There’s a reason another nation aside from France is hopping mad over the AUKUS agreement: China.
According to state propaganda mouthpiece Global Times, the Chinese foreign ministry said the deal marked the danger “of a Cold War resurgence,” “an arms race” and “nuclear proliferation.” Given that this statement was made weeks before the Chinese military tested hypersonic missiles, one guesses Beijing isn’t angry because Xi Jinping and his circle have turned into Birkenstock-wearing peace protesters but because the nuclear-powered subs are a powerful deterrent to Chinese sea power in the South Pacific.
That all being said, the geopolitical concerns caused by a U.S. president that didn’t know that France was unaware of AUKUS — or who could plausibly get away with saying he had no idea France was unaware — have to be factored into the equation.
If this is true, it means Biden’s Pentagon is making major arms deals that end up causing intense diplomatic fallout without the president’s full knowledge. If it isn’t, it means Biden pleading ignorance makes his administration look better. Neither one augurs well and both would be an embarrassment to the country on the world stage.