Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, right back at it with you, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and it's time for a Monday pop quiz. I promise it's easy. Just one question, which European country is America's oldest ally? All right. Pens down. Did you guess England? It's a fair mistake given our shared language of the American obsession with all things, Royal family, but no, Great Britain is the imperial power the upstart American colonists fought off in order to establish this little experiment in democracy we call the United States.
Our oldest ally is France. French military power secured the American Revolution. Our Constitution was not ratified until 1789, but that was nearly a decade after we'd established official diplomatic ties with France. In 1944, we stormed the beaches of Normandy to liberate the French from Nazi occupation, and sure, we've had our a tensions over the years. Remember the freedom fries madness back in 2003 when France wasn't down with our invasion of Iraq.
By the way, they weren't wrong about that. Through it all, France has been our ace, our road dog, our bilateral BFF until Friday when France pulled its ambassador to the US out of Washington DC. Now I'm going to say that again, just so you don't miss it. Our diplomatic relationship with France is older than our Constitution, and for the first time in the history of our nation, there's no French ambassador in DC. The issue? A submarine deal with Australia worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
I just have to wonder, what's a couple of hundred billion after 200 years of international cooperation is something else going on here? We're joined now by Ryan Heath, host of POLITICO’s Global Insider podcast and newsletter. Ryan, great to have you here.
Ryan Heath: Likewise, that was a real introduction.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ryan, what is going on here? Is this just about the sub deal?
Ryan Heath: It's really all about China, and the fact that Australia, my home country, is very worried about the shadow that China casts in security and in economic terms over the region. The fact that the US understands that it was really sleeping at the wheel a little bit about how it engages with this rising power. One of the ways this has all come to a head is that Australia is America's closest ally in the region. The best way to play catch up on China is to make sure Australia is effectively being the 24/7 cop for the US in the region.
Obviously, Australia would love to be the seventh country in the world with nuclear-powered submarines. The way to get them is to do this deal with America, and the poor suckers in the process are the French who had the original contract to supply Australia these new submarines.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In certain ways, that sounds right to me. It just sounds like, okay, you're securing the Pacific there. I get the kind of hedge, the ways that we haven't always reflected on China in the most productive ways in terms of international security and economic politics, but why not give your buddies a heads up? Why not chat with France about it? Why not figure out a way to make that deal with Australia while not simply going around the French in this way?
Ryan Heath: Exactly. My mother always taught me you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. This is a recurring theme now, a complaint that a lot of people have had about the new Biden administration, that they can kind of live with the way things happen. They understand that there are a lot of things on the Biden administration's plate. They just don't like how it happens. For a simple couple of phone calls, a lot of pain could have been saved. I think it's the conclusion of a lot of people observing this process.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does it mean for a nation to remove its diplomats and ambassador? It doesn't mean that we're in like a tension with France, not a military one obviously.
Ryan Heath: No. It is a tactic. It's really the clearest way a country has to say, "Whoa, we have a problem with what's going on here, because you can't ignore and act like that." It obviously got all of the headlines that France wants. It doesn't mean that there's the long-term problem, but it does mean there could be a long-term problem if the US doesn't snap back and come to some form of compromise or make amends in some particular way.
They've pulled back their ambassador from Canberra, Australia as well. So it's not just Joe Biden and Antony Blinken that are on the hook here. We're seeing a bunch of other protests as well. Emmanuel Macron, the French President, he is not going to speak at the United Nations General Assembly this week in New York. You might think, "Hey, what has the UN got to do with any of this?" They didn't cancel the contract, but it's a way for Macron to signal how angry he is.
We are seeing a bunch of these protests, and they've ranged from the ambassador being pulled back to a military gala being canceled last week. It could be as diverse as a European Union and Australian trade deal being torpedoed. That's something that the French have put on the table over the weekend saying, "If people are going to stab us in the back, we can't fairly or reasonably conduct a trade negotiation with you." There could be a range of long-term consequences here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When President Trump wanted to flex his muscles relative to the international world community, he was never subtle about it. Sometimes like bully with France, like handshaking more strongly. I'm wondering if Biden is also purposely trying to display a certain kind of muscularity here?
Ryan Heath: It's a version of George Bush in a way more than Donald Trump. It's you're with us or you're against us. Now no one is saying that France is against the US when it comes to China. What the administration here is really doing is signaling, "Well, you need to be more like Australia if you want to be on the American side in dealing with China." If that means honing up a bunch of money and being willing to break a contract in order to say, "Hey, you're all the way with USA on China, then that is a signal that Washington is happy to send at the moment." One of the prices is this good relationship with France at least temporarily, but I do think that is their long-term play here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: After 200 years, is Australia just a more valuable strategic ally at this point than France?
Ryan Heath: It's a tricky one. Australia has fought in every war with the United States since 1899. You've obviously got a lot to those common cultural connections, and the US has to work a bit harder to keep them going with France, the language barrier, and all of that, but at the same time, France is a nuclear power. There might be nuclear energy in those submarines when they eventually arrive in Australia, but that's not the same as the bomb.
Australia doesn't have a veto on the UN Security Council, and the history is a bit longer with France. I think this will be repaired in the end, but the idea that Joe Biden's only thinking about calling Emmanuel Macron now when he could have done it two weeks ago. That's going to rob, and the French aren't going to forget that. They're going to extract the price. In Australia, that might be cash. The Australians are going to have to cut Paris a check, and in the US, there might have to be a little bit of groveling done, and that is not a situation many American presidents find themselves in.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ryan Heath is the host of POLITICO’s Global Insider podcast and newsletter. Ryan, thanks for walking us through all that.
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