The deaths of Afghan civilians — including seven children — in an airstrike outside the Kabul airport in August were a tragic mistake made by US forces who believed they were attacking an ISIS-K car bomber. They took place in a fevered atmosphere of fear and uncertainty during the chaotic US evacuation from Afghanistan, with US leaders desperate to prevent a repeat of the suicide bomb that killed 13 US service personnel and over 170 others. The Pentagon’s admission that it made a mistake makes the White House claim that the US pullout was an extraordinary success seem even more hollow.
The new estrangement between the United States and France looks like another example of extreme carelessness by the administration. Born of Biden’s core foreign policy goal of building a regional anti-China front, placing a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines with Australia could reshape the maritime balance of power in the Pacific. But by going behind the back of France (which had a deal to build conventional subs for Australia), the US antagonized a key European power — one that is willing to play a strategic role in Asia, though it is less convinced of the idea of full-on confrontation with Beijing.
Biden also severely embarrassed President Emmanuel Macron, who is about to embark on a tough reelection race. The US leader is expected to try to rebuild bridges in a telephone call to the Elysee in the next few days, but whatever the justification, it’s extraordinary that Washington didn’t handle France with more sensitivity.
US allies were expecting a return to predictability and stability after former President Donald Trump’s chaos. They didn’t bargain for this kind of erratic foreign policy management.
‘Things are not going well between us’
Speaking to the France 2 TV channel on Saturday, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Australia’s choice to scrap their prior submarine purchase deal, which had been in the works since 2016, amounted to a “crisis.” “There has been lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt. This will not do. Things are not going well between us, they’re not going well at all,” he said. Le Drian also took a shot at the UK’s involvement in the secret deal, saying France did not need to recall its ambassador from the country because “we know their permanent opportunism, so there is no need to bring our ambassador to explain it to us. In fact, in this matter, Great Britain is a bit of a fifth wheel.”
Biden heads to UNGA
The spat with France will overshadow the build-up to Biden’s presidential debut at the United Nations General Assembly where he was expected to argue that he is invigorating US alliances.
The speech — at an annual event significantly pared back because of Covid-19 — will mark Biden’s best opportunity yet to explain the philosophy behind his foreign policy. It will also kick off a critical stretch for the President as he looks ahead to the G20 summit in Italy and the next UN climate conference, in Scotland, in the coming weeks.
Look for Biden to try to exert fresh global leadership in the pandemic and the effort to vaccinate much more of the global population. These are also crucial weeks for the battle against climate change. Billions of dollars worth of green energy projects are stuffed into the President’s vast spending plan — which faces a complicated path on Capitol Hill. Passing it is vital to US efforts to convince other states to make strong commitments to cut carbon emissions.
The President’s likely calls for the preservation of global democracy will also come with a tinge of irony, given the relentless efforts of his predecessor to trash democratic freedoms at home with ever expanding lies about election fraud.
Biden is also likely to explain how his plan to stand up to China — which increasingly drives many areas of foreign, domestic and economic policy — can be done without triggering direct confrontations with Beijing. Biden was expected to hold the first face-to-face talks of his administration with Xi Jinping at the G20 next month. But it remains unclear whether the Chinese President will travel with the global pandemic still raging.