The UN General Assembly in New York is usually a polite talking shop, rich in hedging and platitudes. Not this time. Today the mounting Aukus row has derailed the gathering.
It’s a subject which combines advantage and risk for Boris Johnson in his US foray and one which will be hashed out with Biden this evening when the two meet for their first substantive talks at the White House. The anger of France over a perceived slight by the US, UK and Australia in the Aukus submarine deal is a multi-lateral quarrel which reflects the underlying awkwardness of US-European relations and differing strategic priorities. As the EU Council President put it (citing the Biden promises of post-Trump re-engagement): “America is back. But is America back in America — or somewhere else? We don’t know.”
Here at home, it has unsteadied the cautious post-Brexit rapprochement between Britain and France and complicates Johnson’s attempts to use the upcoming COP26 summit to consolidate better relations with other world leaders.
This is not only the stuff of high strategy and big contracts. The new Anglosphere partnership stymied a rival (and troubled) French submarine contract with fallout including the French defence minister cancelling talks this week with the Ministry of Defence on co-operation between France and the UK.
As our (French-speaking) Prime Minister himself once mischievously pointed out, London is the “sixth biggest French city” by the formal count of French people who live and work in London. Even after Brexit and allowing for a bit of Boris’s fuzzy maths, London is a major draw for a bilingual French elite, including Macron himself who had a stint working here for Rothschild’s. And if the competition to lure City jobs to Paris has sharpened since the EU referendum in 2016, the stubborn fact is that a glitzy campaign to make Paris the “leading financial centre” in Europe has made slow progress, not least because a lot of people in financial services, fintech and associated business may not love Brexit, but still like being based in London.
Yet if it looks like a game, set and Raducanu-style match for Team Anglosphere, next steps require more than a triumphalism which might come too easily to a Government in need of success stories and a new Foreign Secretary in Liz Truss, whose advocacy for trade deals, shuttle diplomacy and combination of kooky charm and nous have landed her a place as the public face of UK diplomacy.
Unless you are an insistently sorrowing Remainer, or one of the crochety former ambassadors the BBC rolls out on a production line of favourite “told-you-sos”, there is no need to over-indulge to French hyper-sensitivity (tempting as a new motto of “Who Whinges Wins” might be). At the same time, when tempers cool, both Johnson and Macron know well on a personal level that the UK and France are far better allied in military matters and strategic thinking than other European allies. Also, the Franco-German prospect of a European defence “strategic autonomy” has more holes in it than Swiss cheese for the foreseeable future and leadership of the French and British armed forces are close — professionally and most often personally.
So the UK can afford to be more supportive in helping to protect Europe from another wave of Islamist terror nesting in the vast belt of the Sahel. The UK has 300 troops in Mali under the auspices of a UN mission, at a time when the regime’s tilt towards Russia has complicated the French intervention.
Boosting UK support for transport, logistics and air cover for operations against deadly rebels which have had some success this year might at least look like a readiness to co-operate with a European ally, and Britain need not apologise for being part of an alliance which proves that it can be a minor but savvy player in the global tilt towards Indo-China — from trade to security strategy. But wise countries tend their old alliances even as they cultivate new ones. For that reason, practical empathy with France is the better course joie maligne (the French packaging of schadenfreude). It is a long way to the Indo-Pacific and Washington. The Channel meanwhile, remains an hour and a half from the Blackwall Tunnel — and just 20 miles wide.
Anne McElvoy is senior editor at The Economist
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