Biden Brags About Diplomacy. It’s All Spin.
If an ally recalls its ambassador, it’s a sign of an epic blunder.
“Diplomacy is back,” President Biden triumphantly tweeted from the G7 summit back in June. The president has devoted a good deal of airtime since taking office to ennobling rhetoric about America returning to the world stage as a reliable multilateralist, a trusted ally, a responsible global player. Paris climate treaty rejoined. Ready to return to Iran’s nuclear deal. No more travel bans and caging of immigrants. America is back. Diplomacy is back.
It’s all spin.
French President Emmanuel Macron recalled his U.S. ambassador for consultations, over what Paris considers a stab in the back from Washington. (It took a fence-mending call from President Biden before Macron agreed to return his ambassador to Washington.) The casus belli is Australia's decision to scuttle a submarine deal worth billions to France in favor of a partnership with Washington and London instead.
The French-Australian deal for diesel submarines was beset with rising costs and delays—a possible reason for Australia’s about-face. The new Australian-U.S.-British partnership will deliver nuclear submarines, albeit with considerable delay over the French deal, also leaving Australia—a country without a nuclear industry—more dependent on its foreign partners than in the canceled deal. France may be hyperventilating—this is the country that lamented America’s hyperpower not so long ago—but wasn’t Biden’s team of grown-ups supposed to know how to handle imperfect allies with savoir-faire? Weren’t they supposed to restore confidence among alienated allies by avoiding precisely the kind of crisis they now have at their doorstep?
Why so much fury over an arms deal? Because allies do not blindside allies.
Recalling ambassadors is not trivial. In fact, in the more than 200 years of French-U.S. bilateral relations, it is unprecedented. It is such a big deal that French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that “This brutal, unilateral, and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do.”
It’s clearly worse: France, after all, left its ambassador in Washington all four years of the Trump presidency.
Even when the mercurial former president took to Twitter to deride France, the French ambassador stayed in Washington. The French did not recall their ambassador when Trump went beyond juvenile twitter taunts and took strategic decisions that clearly ran against what Paris held dear, including walking away from the Iran nuclear deal, leaving the Paris climate accords, supporting Brexit, or moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Each time, the French criticized and regretted Trump’s policy. Their ambassador stayed put.
Nor did the French recall their ambassador when Barack Obama and George W. Bush antagonized Paris. Not in the summer of 2013, when Obama set a red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons and then, when France was ready to join the U.S. in a punitive strike, changed his mind. Not in response to the 2003 Iraq war—which the French bitterly and very openly opposed. Even during the Cold War bilateral flare-ups did not trigger such an escalation. The French did not recall their ambassador during the Suez Crisis in 1956, when Washington aligned itself with the Soviet Union[!] against the Anglo-French intervention in Egypt. It never happened. Until Biden.
Defending the U.S. volte-face against France on the merits of the deal misses the point: There are ways to soothe angry allies over divergent interests. If they recall their ambassador, that is a sign of a diplomatic blunder of epic proportions.
And blunders are piling up. Afghanistan aside, the Biden administration dragged its feet for months on COVID-19 travel restrictions against European citizens, under spurious pretexts, especially as immunization percentages in Europe outpaced America’s and the anti-vax craze made the U.S. a higher risk location than any country in Europe. The European Union opened its borders to vaccinated Americans over the summer. Biden failed to reciprocate until now—agreeing to open to Europeans from November onward. Would Trump have kept borders closed, given Europe’s immunization rates last June? Moot point. Biden did.
And speaking of Trump and Biden, the Biden administration virtue signaled that it would treat immigrants compassionately, more so than under former President Trump. Twitter compassion is one thing. But he’s defended his continuation of Trump’s pandemic-inspired Title 42 policy to expel most immigrants trying to enter the U.S. and has, nine months into his policy, expelled more people than Trump did after implementing it in March 2020.
The problem has been compounded by Haitians streaming into the U.S. to escape poverty, political turmoil, and a major earthquake. What would Trump do? He mocked Haiti and in 2018 sought to end the Temporary Protective Status for Haitian refugees who had come to the U.S. after the 2010 earthquake. It was not a Boy Scout’s moment, but Biden has outdone him: expelling migrants as they arrive. Speak like a Squad member, act like a Proud Boy.
Trump was no multilateralist. He was brash, rude, bombastic, and did not care much about allies and alliances, if America’s interest, as he saw it, diverged. To have the French almost miss him speaks volumes of the diplomatic blunder the Biden presidency is becoming.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-Partisan Research Institute in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi.