Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who is currently Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate change, made waves in an interview he gave last Monday on the French TV broadcaster BFMTV when he said that President Biden “had literally not been aware of what had transpired” on the historic French fallout over the submarine deal that the U.S. had signed with Australia and the UK.
The AUKUS deal, an accord where Australia agreed to construct nuclear-powered submarines with American technology caused a historic international spat between Paris and Washington D.C. since Australia had signed a multibillion-dollar deal with the French purchasing a diesel-powered submarine years ago.
At first, the French canceled a gala they had organized to commemorate the alliance between both countries. French foreign minister called the move a “stab in the back” and decried the move as a “brutal, unilateral, unpredictable decision”. France then heighten up the tensions between both nations to a historic level when Macron decided to recall the French ambassadors in the U.S. and Australia, which is a move that is not common among allies. Eventually, Biden spoke to President Macron over the phone a few days after the submarine deal was announced, and the French agreed to return their ambassador to Washington D.C.
The issue, although certainly an embarrassment for the administration, had already moved out of the news cycle as the media and the country focused on things like the current drama on Congress over the reconciliation bill and the debt ceiling. However, Kerry’s remarks last Monday have brought the issue back to some public attention.
Kerry casts doubt over the decision-making process in the Biden White House
Although most of the interview was about climate policy, at the end of the interview Kerry was asked by French interviewers if the submarine deal could be considered as something that could sour French-American relationships in the long term. Kerry said that the relationship between both countries is “so much bigger” than the problem that arose over the “lack of communication” on the submarine deal, the former Democratic presidential candidate also said that he talked to French President Macron about the issue and that there was an “understanding” that both nations have bigger issues to face together.
When asked if he understood the rage the decision caused in Paris, Kerry said that he did that President Biden only was aware of the ire that the nuclear submarine deal had caused in Paris after he talked to Biden. According to Kerry, Biden asked him “what is the situation” and he clarified that the President was “not aware” of what had happened. A spokesperson for Kerry then said to The Hill that the climate envoy was clearly referring to the French sentiment” and not the details of the AUKUS deal.
Since Kerry did not dwell into the details of what he meant, it is not known why President Biden was only made aware of the fallout after talking to Kerry, instead of being notified of it by Secretary of State Blinken or the U.S. ambassador to France. During the interview it was also not made clear when did Biden consult Kerry about the French reaction to the submarine deal: before announcing the deal, soon after, or only when the crisis between both countries was already in full display.
The White House announced the deal on September 15, in a joint press conference between the heads of government of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In the joint statement signed by all three countries, there is a reference that seems to be directed at calming French concerns saying that Paris is a “key partner” in the Indo-Pacific region. Hence, it appears the administration forecasted some discomfort by France over the deal, which makes it even more surprising that Biden was caught flat-footed over the French outrage.
Of course, it is also not explained very well why the President of the United States, who is in command of the foreign policy of the country, was not fully aware of the reaction that the AUKUS submarine deal could create in Paris, which is America’s oldest ally.
The latest remarks by Kerry open many questions on the way that decisions are made in the Biden White House and on the awareness of the President over key foreign policy issues. Is the President being properly informed by his cabinet and staff over the issues? If so, is Biden dismissing their advice like he allegedly did over Afghanistan? Why did Biden rely on Kerry and not Blinken to understand the diplomatic situation in France?
What is certain is that Kerry’s interview certainly will not be welcomed at the White House, which is right now trying to get their party together in Congress, so they can give Biden a political win, at a time when the President’s approval ratings continue to drop.