Biden falters in pledge to strengthen US alliances

President Biden has promised to strengthen U.S. alliances, but some of his high-profile moves in the early months of his administration have rankled allies.

France is outraged by a new partnership between the U.S., the United Kingdom (U.K.) and Australia on nuclear-powered submarines; the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has caused allies to question U.S. commitments abroad; and Europeans are frustrated over the administration’s decision to maintain coronavirus-related travel restrictions even as countries open their borders to vaccinated Americans.

The White House insists that Biden values U.S. partnerships with its allies and is committed to bolstering those bonds, especially after four years of former President Trump testing those relationships with his combative nature and “America first” foreign policy.

But the recent developments nevertheless complicate Biden’s efforts, particularly with European allies.

“You can never keep all the allies happy everywhere all the time, and foreign policy is about making trade-offs and managing risks and taking opportunities and gaming it out,” said Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for New American Security and a former foreign policy adviser to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“I don’t think this is a net setback. I think this is a major net step forward, but it does have obvious setbacks on the French and European side,” he said of the deal struck with the U.K. and Australia that aims to deliver nuclear-powered submarines for Australia.

Experts and former officials say the new trilateral agreement is an important step given China’s growing military power in the Indo-Pacific, though the White House argues the pact is not in response to one nation.

Biden has made countering Chinese influence a key focus of his foreign policy, and the agreement will serve to both deepen ties between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia and erode Beijing’s military regional advantage.

The French, however, were seeking their own multibillion-dollar defense contract with Australia and were enraged by the news. The White House didn’t give France and other partners advance notification until the day the agreement was announced, and Paris responded swiftly, recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia on Friday and canceling plans for a gala in Washington, D.C.

The announcement of the trilateral agreement represents “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners, whose consequences directly affect the vision we have of our alliances, of our partnerships and of the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement Friday, adding that the ambassadors were being recalled at the direction of President Emmanuel Macron.

“We have been in close touch with our French partners on their decision to recall Ambassador Etienne to Paris for consultations,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement Friday.

“We understand their position and will continue to be engaged in the coming days to resolve our differences, as we have done at other points over the course of our long alliance. France is our oldest ally and one of our strongest partners, and we share a long history of shared democratic values and a commitment to working together to address global challenges,” she added.

Evelyn Farkas, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia during the Obama administration, commended the agreement as an appropriate move to deter China but said it was a “missed opportunity” not to include the French in the overall strategic partnership.

“This clearly is not unilateralism, as we had under previous administration,” Farkas said, noting that Biden, unlike Trump, is not being “reckless or unpredictable.”

“It’s very much traditional deterrence. The only problem is the diplomatic portion of this wasn’t worked out in advance,” she said.

Charles Kupchan, who served as senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said the rollout of the new agreement, while well intentioned, was problematic.

“At the end of the day, to stand up to China across the board, America’s best bet is a broad-based alliance of democracies, and this pact adds heft to a balancing coalition. But at what cost?” Kupchan said. “I think more homework should have been done at a minimum to inform Europeans that this initiative was coming down the road and perhaps even to get more European engagement.”

U.S. officials are also looking to reassure wary allies following Afghanistan withdrawal, which left thousands of at-risk Afghans in the country as the Taliban took over. Biden stuck to his Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline despite public calls from some allies to extend the date to allow for more evacuations.

Brett Bruen, who served in the Obama White House, said some European diplomats have expressed frustration that Biden and his team have not spent enough time meeting with or talking to allies, particularly after they viewed the Afghanistan withdrawal as a “unilateral move” by the U.S.

“The leaders want to have face time,” Bruen said. “They want to have a chance to air their grievances, their concerns and also get the sense that Biden is listening to them.”

Biden insisted late last month that he has not seen any allies question U.S. credibility and insisted that every NATO ally “knew and agreed with the decision I made to end, jointly end, our involvement with Afghanistan.”

The coming week will be full of opportunities for Biden to address some of the concerns of allies head on.

The president is expected to host British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the White House, where talks will likely focus on COVID-19, the new trilateral agreement with Australia and potentially the fallout of the Afghanistan withdrawal, which drew harsh criticism from some U.K. lawmakers.

Biden will also host a COVID-19 summit during the week to emphasize the need for a stronger global response to the pandemic. Foreign leaders and international bodies such as the World Health Organization have urged the U.S. to abstain from offering booster shots at a time when many poorer countries lack access to first doses of the vaccine.

Biden will be speaking directly to allies on Monday when he outlines his foreign policy agenda in his first address as president to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. He will participate in the remainder of the events virtually from Washington due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is going to be an important moment for him to show up and to put up, or, quite frankly, a lot of countries are going to start aggressively looking at alternatives to our leadership on the world stage,” said Bruen, who served as director of global engagement during the Obama administration.

Fontaine, of the Center for New American Security, said it will be particularly important for Biden to try to reassure partners in Europe, where a “higher degree of alliance maintenance” is required.

“He’ll need to characterize what’s happened in Afghanistan in ways that are both realistic but also trying to make the point that this is a unique circumstance and doesn’t augur Americans’ withdrawal from the world or the Middle East in its entirety,” Fontaine said.

Asked Friday about the pushback from France, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield expressed confidence that the recent dust-up would not alter the trajectory of the relationship between Washington and Paris.

“Good friends have disagreements, but that’s the nature of friendship,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “We will continue to work with our French colleagues on areas of cooperation and address any tensions in our relationship, but we don’t see those tensions changing the nature of our friendship.”

Tags Afghanistan Australia China Diplomacy Donald Trump Emmanuel Macron Foreign policy France Joe Biden John McCain Linda Thomas-Greenfield UK US allies

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