In January, U.S. President Joe Biden came to power armed with the promise that the United States, in terms of foreign policy, was “back to the table” and ready to assume leadership of “the world alongside countries who share our most deeply held values.” These words would, of course, have been a relief to international relations that were mistreated during Donald Trump’s four years in office.
On the other hand, who would have really thought that this declaration of multilateral principles, incidentally contradictory (cooperation vs. undivided leadership), was not going to clash with the major interests of the American superpower?
Canada was quickly able to see it: the revocation of permission to build the Keystone XL pipeline — a correct decision by the Americans, of course, but taken unilaterally — and the continued inflexible position on Canadian softwood lumber and dairy products. As for the Huawei affair, Biden, unlike Trump, was sympathetic toward Canada and the “two Michaels” imprisoned in China, but we are still waiting for some concrete results. Proof, in fact, that by sticking to American foreign policy in this matter as in many others, Ottawa is seriously lacking in diplomatic initiative and relevance.
It is now France’s turn to see the limits of the aforementioned promise of greater collaboration with Australia’s decision last week to cancel the contract for 12 French submarines, signed in 2016 to the value of C$80 billion, without warning, preferring American nuclear vessels. This U-turn launches a new strategic partnership — an Anglo-Saxon one — between Washington, Canberra and London. It also makes Australia, which is in open economic and diplomatic conflict with Beijing, an American outpost in the resistance to Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific region.
The decision taken in secret was perceived by France, and not without reason, as an enormous American betrayal — so much so that the crisis caused by this affair risks lasting effects. So great is the anger in Paris that it highlights for some the feeling that, deep down, Washington only cares about its allies, from those closest to the most distant, when they can be useful to it — conforming to historical tendencies. You only had to look at the furious and mildly undiplomatic reaction this weekend of France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drain, who compared Biden’s behavior “to that of Trump, without the tweets,” with which “there was a lie, there was duplicity, there was a major breach of trust.”
This is to say, in light of this “submarine crisis,” that the idea that Biden’s approach to multilateral cooperation is very much part of the larger global confrontation between the United States and Beijing. He who loves me follows me — a slicker way of saying “If you’re not with us then you’re against us.” The United States is an empire that doesn’t want to die, an empire confronted with China’s implacable growth. In fact, Biden follows on from Barack Obama and his “Asian pivot,” and from Trump and his “economic war.”
The “third way” defended in Paris and certain European circles, in which they attempt to depolarize the world — without forgetting, let’s not be naive, the accompanied development of the French military industry — is thus undermined. For Biden, “multilateralism” consists of sweeping the world along in the wake of protection of the American empire and its military-industrial complex. The chilling of Franco-American relations raises some difficult questions: How to build more collaborative international relations? Is a more concerted and more nuanced western approach possible when faced with China?
It is in this context that the United Nations’ annual General Assembly opens on Tuesday, which will see talks happen face-to-face and via video conferencing. Biden will be there; Emmanuel Macron will not. He had already decided not to participate in person and keeps his distance, like many other heads of state and governments. The pots may be difficult to put back together.
In the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the delta variant is in the process of rekindling, and having poorly managed the American retreat from Afghanistan, Biden has seen a fall in his popularity and public opinion to similar levels as those of his predecessor. It seems he’s also taken a hit among his allies as well.