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President Joe Biden came to office promising to restore competency to U.S. foreign policy after four years of Donald Trump’s diplomatic bomb-throwing.

But eight months after taking office, a series of missteps have angered allies, drawn criticism even from supporters and raised concern that Biden isn’t as sure-footed in international affairs as advertised. On Friday afternoon, France even recalled its ambassador, a dramatic escalation in tension between the two allies.

The most immediate reason for France’s displeasure was Australia’s decision to scrap a $66 billion submarine contract in favor of U.S. and U.K. technology. France recalled its ambassador to Australia as well, but officials were especially galled that the U.S. didn’t inform its oldest ally in advance that the deal was in the works.

The submarine decision was unacceptable behavior that roils the very “conception we have of our alliances, our partnerships and the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement.

Numerous U.S. officials had brushed off the French outrage as little more than ruffled feathers and posturing ahead of presidential elections next year. But the move to recall Ambassador Philippe Etienne showed how badly the Biden administration had misjudged the French response. It also fit a broader pattern where Biden, despite his repeated pledges to put U.S. allies at the center of U.S. foreign policy, has left them feeling jilted and angry.

“You have to expect more U.S. unilateral moves when it serves their interest despite their good words to allies,” said Celia Belin, a visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “I think the Europeans feel they have been taken for granted.”

Before the submarine decision, critics in Europe had argued that Biden’s actions toward Europe didn’t match his pledges of friendship. Biden unsettled NATO allies with his decision to go ahead with a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan, accelerated further by the Taliban’s rapid takeover.

European nations, including France, have also been furious all summer about Biden’s refusal to lift coronavirus-related travel restrictions on flights from the continent, even though Europe was allowing Americans to visit.

And Biden left Poland and Ukraine feeling jilted by abandoning efforts to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which critics argued would undermine European security.

For some allies, it wasn’t U.S. policy that was the problem: Few disagreed that it was time to end the war in Afghanistan or, in the case of the submarine deal, to strengthen military capabilities to counter a more assertive China in the Indo-Pacific. What mattered instead was the execution, marred by the sorts of oversights and mistakes Biden’s team assured everyone they wouldn’t make.

Le Drian had spoken for many European officials when he had earlier criticized Biden’s handling of the submarine issue.

“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do,” Le Drian told French radio after the submarine decision was announced. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”

U.S. President Joe Biden arrives to speak in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday. | BLOOMBERG
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives to speak in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday. | BLOOMBERG

Numerous U.S. officials had privately dismissed Le Drian’s public anger as a temper tantrum, cracking jokes about French pettiness when the embassy in Washington canceled an anniversary gala set for Friday. More seriously, they argued that it was Australia’s responsibility to inform France of its decision.

Le Drian is a former defense minister who personally helped negotiate the Australian sub deal, and the project would have meant jobs for his home town, L’Orient. Australia has previously raised concerns that the project was moving slowly and the submarines wouldn’t be sufficiently advanced.

A White House official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said the U.S. regretted France’s decision to recall Etienne and would continue to work with France. Asked what Biden thought of Le Drian’s remark on Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded: “I would say the president doesn’t think about it much.”

The Biden team’s moves prompted some “I told you so” reaction from members of the Trump administration, who saw the disputes as inevitable because many of Biden’s foreign policy goals aren’t all that different from Trump’s.

Like Trump, Biden wanted out of Afghanistan at almost any cost, and he believes that competition with China will be a central challenge of the coming decades.

“For all of Biden’s rhetoric about not being Trump, once he gets into office the reality is we have to make decisions that our allies may not like, and that doesn’t go away just because he shows up and proclaims this nirvana moment,” said Wess Mitchell, a former assistant secretary of state for Europe under Trump.

“We missed a huge opportunity to showcase allied unity on China and instead gave Beijing an opportunity to highlight frayed U.S. ties with France.”

Psaki hinted at the shifting priorities, suggesting that as the U.S. adjusts its focus to the Indo-Pacific, its partnership with France would become less important.

“Our resources as a country, as a national security team, are not unlimited,” Psaki said, adding that Biden’s agreement with Australia was aimed at “moving forward for security in the Indo-Pacific.”

But to France’s defenders, that dismissal ignored the broader significance of the deal and the prospect that it may weaken those in France who seek closer ties with the U.S. The contract wasn’t just a submarine sale with a big price tag. It was a key element of France’s own strategic thinking for the Indo-Pacific, a plan that was to include intelligence-sharing, joint exercises and a ramped-up presence in a region where France already has a large footprint.

For the White House, “this deal is perceived only as a business contract with economic dimensions,” said Pierre Morcos, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They don’t see that for France it’s really more than that — it’s part of a broader strategic partnership that was supposed to last for the next five decades.”

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