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AUKUS and France: awkward lessons for Australia

Posted By on November 5, 2021 @ 06:00

It’s not yet two months old, but our AUKUS partnership with the United States and Britain is already showering us with lessons about statecraft, strategy, politics and how to buy submarines. Here is my take on what the past seven weeks have shown us.

First, strategic partnerships are built on common interests and explicitly shared understandings. These links cannot be faked.

France’s ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, stressed at the National Press Club this week that the failure of the submarine project was the result of ‘the breach of trust caused by the attitude of the Australian government’.

This has a slightly Chinese ‘wolf warrior’ tone to it. Is it solely Australia’s fault? In truth, it takes two to fall out of love.

When it comes to submarines, Australia and France were never on the same page. For Paris, as Thebault says, ‘The Attack-class program was always far more than a contract.’ From the start, the French saw it as an unprecedented act of generosity to build a strategic partnership based on access to their most secret military technology.

Australia never saw it that way. We treated the submarine project like any other defence procurement—a negotiation over price, time frames and specifications.

We ran the project in the bowels of the Department of Defence with officials reluctantly surfacing every few months, hoping to avoid questions at Senate committees. For years, our political leadership had almost nothing to say about submarines other than talking up jobs in South Australia.

By contrast, France saw this as a grand political deal. An Australian military contingent marched at the head of the Bastille Day parade through Paris in July 2016. France saw the Australian connection as the centrepiece of a new strategy to emphasise the Indo-Pacific, which President Emmanuel Macron announced in Sydney in May 2018.

Neither country ever came to grips with this flawed reading of each other’s intentions.

The second lesson is that AUKUS has a better chance of working because it gathers three countries with a far closer connection around interests and shared strategic understandings.

The Anglosphere works—to the annoyance of not just the French but also a generation of Australian public servants brainwashed with the myth that claiming we are part of Asia means we should shun ties of history and kinship.

That’s not to say the AUKUS partners might not disappoint each other. Indeed, the third lesson is that, in international diplomacy, Australia, the US, Britain and even France all have a great deal to be modest and apologetic about.

In the 1980s, France was hardly a model neighbour in the Pacific—think of nuclear testing and sinking the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour. What about Britain’s withdrawal from east of the Suez Canal in the 1950s or joining the EU in the 1960s at a cost to Australian exports? Then we have the US withdrawal from the forever war in Afghanistan a nine-week eternity ago. And don’t forget our chronic underinvestment in defence, enabled by American military might.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is surely right to say that national leaders should ‘move on’. It’s time to stop the recriminations, which unchecked could ricochet for years. We all have more than enough, to use President Joe Biden’s word, ‘clumsy’ foreign policy moments to live down.

Lesson four: we have more insight into Biden. A careful reading of his comments at that meeting with Macron in Rome last Friday shows that Biden did not completely throw Australia under the bus.

Biden said, ‘What we did was clumsy. It was not done with a lot of grace.’ Note the emphasis on ‘we’. The rest of Biden’s comments stressed the importance of America’s relations with France, but there was no backward step on the purpose or priority of AUKUS. Why? Because the Anglosphere works.

On the other hand, it’s remarkable that Biden—‘honest to God’—seemed astounded by the French annoyance at losing a $90 billion deal. While Donald Trump never read his briefing papers, it seems that Biden reads his but can’t remember them. We need a strategy for Biden management.

Lesson five: we need to lock in AUKUS outcomes at warp speed. We shouldn’t take a luxurious 18 months to decide between a maxed-out US or maxed-out UK submarine production line.

Australia should opt to buy in to the US Virginia-class production line; we need to find a way to bring the UK into that, but let’s stick to the US design with no costly Australian modifications.

My sixth lesson is that strategy is at its best when it’s written down. A flaw in the Australian approach on submarines is that both the French design and its nuclear-propelled successor were the results of policy made by press conference.

Governments need to get back to the discipline of thinking through complex policy on paper and using ministerial statements and policy documents to explain them to the Australian public.

Morrison should use the next parliamentary sitting to make a detailed statement about the purpose of and plan for AUKUS. He should articulate an agenda for the 18-month pathway to a design decision and allow the broadest parliamentary debate to get everyone on record as to where they stand. The PM should then regularly report progress to parliament.

Lesson seven: Plan Bs are good. We would never have been given the opportunity to develop nuclear propulsion if Morrison hadn’t forced Defence to ask questions that had previously been undiscussable.

The search for Plan B reflects a type of policy leadership now all too rare at the political level. Up to that moment, the government had surrendered the public management of the submarine program to the worst bovine instincts of the Defence Department. Never again.

It’s desperately important that AUKUS succeeds and that after 18 months—or, hopefully, earlier—we have that defined pathway to nuclear propulsion. But what if the project fails? We need a Plan C, which will be the plan for how we strengthen the deterrent capability and hitting power of our military without nuclear-powered submarines.

Plan C must strengthen our defences as we wait potentially 20 years (hopefully less) for the nuclear boats to arrive. The Australian Defence Force of 2022 is much more important to us than the ADF of 2042.

Finally, lesson eight: if we run AUKUS like we ran the Attack-class project, it too will fail. AUKUS cannot be left to the admirals, fine people though they are. The government must fund and run this project like the security of our nation hangs on the outcome. As indeed it does.

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