Did the US betray France, or is outrage over a submarine deal simply sour grapes?

Did the US betray France, or is outrage over a submarine deal simply sour grapes?
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Over recent weeks, French government officials, media and opinion leaders have railed against “betrayal,” “insults” and “back-stabbing” by the United States and the Biden administration over a nuclear submarine deal and the new AUKUS regional security arrangement. Some other Europeans piled on. While Australia and the United Kingdom, the other two partners in AUKUS, also have been criticized, the focus overwhelmingly has been on the U.S. having violated international norms and injured France. 

Some in France have labeled the Biden administration as an unreliable partner and unworthy ally — as bad as the Trump administration, just without the tweets. While some of the venom of the initial French response appears to have abated, the acrimonious taste lingers, and it seems some lessons must be drawn.

In reality, our French friends have been overreacting and engaging in a bit of hypocrisy. But first, a couple of important stipulations. France long has been one of America’s most important and most reliable allies. Yes, we’ve had our differences, public and private, and both sides have made mistakes. But when the chips are down, France has proven to be a key ally for the U.S. and a positive force in global diplomacy and security. Any U.S. administration should value and nurture our relationship with France. Second, although close political and diplomatic allies, the U.S. and France also have been commercial rivals. We will continue to be commercial rivals; business is business, and international business is competitive, even among friends and allies.

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Though differing in size, our two economies are similar in some ways and, therefore, competitors. Every day, French and U.S. companies, large and small, in various sectors, compete to win large, important deals in our respective home markets, in each other’s, and around the world. Hopefully, all will compete fairly, avoiding illicit practices but competing vigorously, with their home governments also aggressively supporting their national champions.

While disgruntled French officials have complained about not being included in the AUKUS South Pacific regional security group, the focus of French complaints has been quite clear — it’s not fair that the Americans sneaked in and won a lucrative submarine deal with Australia, costing France revenue, exports, jobs and prestige. Yet it’s not unlike the kind of aggressive commercial diplomacy France has been doing for years to provide their global companies, some state-owned, with an advantage. French governments’ efforts to win huge aircraft sales deals for Airbus — taking them away from U.S. firm Boeing — are legendary but are just one example of France’s willingness and ability to go to war on behalf of its companies. 

France long has been considered a fierce, effective government that fights for its companies, such as Total, EADS, Dassault, Alstom, Thales, Peugeot and BNP-Paribas. There are American companies that, rightly or wrongly, might claim that French government political deals cost them international trade deals. That makes it a little difficult to summon up much sympathy for France having been aced out of a competitive military sales contract.

Frankly, the suggestion that the U.S. government — and/or our British and Australian partners — somehow owed it to France to notify French competitors in advance of our new competing submarine offer seems naïve in the context of today’s competitive global business environment. Does anyone really think the French government notifies Boeing or ExxonMobil or the U.S. government when it puts a competing package on the table? 

Major Western industrial democracies, including the United States and France, need strong alliances. They also need to be strong, reliable partners for their allies. But it is a fact of life that these same industrial democracies and allies inevitably will compete aggressively for major international business deals, infrastructure projects, natural resource concessions, and military sales deals. France and the United States often will be among the leading competitors. Both sides will support their companies and workers. Both must compete fairly and ethically, follow the rules, win graciously — and, when necessary, lose graciously. 

Overblown reaction from either side is as much a threat to alliances as the commercial competition itself. Let’s all commit to being great allies, strategic partners, and aggressive but fair commercial competitors.

Shaun Donnelly is a senior adviser at the U.S. Council for International Business. A retired diplomat and trade negotiator, he served as U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and in senior economic policy positions at the State Department and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.