Submarine diplomacy — this is an in-depth fix-up

In this handout image provided by the Australian Defence Force, Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Rankin is seen during AUSINDEX 21, a biennial maritime exercise between the Royal Australian Navy and the Indian Navy, on Sept. 5 in Darwin, Australia. POIS Yuri Ramsey/Australian Defence Force/Getty Images/Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Everything was gently great on the beachfront at Cornwall, England, last June 12.

Gentle waves were rolling gently onto the beach. A gentle summer breeze kept the shoreline shrubbery waving, ever so gently.

And sitting with their backs to that gently idyllic backdrop, Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron were sitting side by side in white cane lawn chairs and were doing what they do best: They were gently feeding an international herd the incredibly news-lite morsels that, of course, are what G-7 summit photo-ops are mainly about.

“ ... As we say back in the States,” said America’s president, “we are on the same page.”

“ ... We have to face challenges and crises,” said France’s president, “ ... and I think it is great to have the U.S. president be willing to cooperate. ... What you demonstrate is ... leadership is partnership.

“ ... We are back — the U.S. is back,” Biden effused. “We feel very strongly about the cohesion of NATO ... the European Union ... incredibly strong and vibrant. ... We are very supportive. Very supportive.”

It would turn out that the biggest news these closest of allies would be making would be what they knew and had to be thinking about — but had absolutely no intention of saying. Especially not to each other. And definitely not in front of a herd with electronic ears.

Here’s what Macron really knew: France’s huge contract to supply a dozen fine, trusty but old generation diesel submarines to Australia — a deal he hoped would help him get reelected next year — was in trouble back in Australia. Big-time. Soaring costs, slipping deadlines — and mainly the fact that these diesel subs would be no match for China’s increasingly larger nuclear-powered sub fleet. The Aussie government had been talking (publicly, at a legislative hearing, covered by their news herd!) about looking for an alternative contractor.

Here’s what Biden really knew: The United States had been secretly talking with Britain and Australia since March about structuring a whole new program in which the U.S. and Britain would provide Australia with their nuclear-powered (but conventionally armed) submarines.

But, for reasons that are unfathomable and wrongheaded, Biden and his two former staff aides who were practiced at pleasing their boss and are now his top-titled policy advisers — national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — had decided on a policy of disrespectfully keeping all that they were planning a secret from their allies, Macron and France. That of coursed only set up Macron to be most publicly humiliated if it all came to pass. (And as you know, it did just days ago.)

Also, for reasons that are absurd and bizarre, Macron and his top team chose to publicly pretend they didn’t even know what had been publicly reported in Australia’s news media about the problems France’s diesel submarine contract had incurred and what the Aussies had been saying.

Two weeks before that G-7 summit in Cornwall, on June 1, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website headlined: “Defence looking at alternatives to French submarines in case $90 billion program falters.” At an Australian Senate hearing, Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty testified that the submarine program continued to have problems and that he was considering unspecified alternative submarine options.

Then, at Cornwall, Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison conferred privately and the White House issued a press release saying they had discussed unspecified strategic issues. And four days later, Morrison and Macron conferred in Paris. They posed for a pandemically approved fist-bump photo-op, and may well have kept their fists clenched for what followed.

“Scott Morrison warns France to meet multi-billion-dollar submarine deal deadline,” headlined the Australian Broadcasting Corporation story. The June 16 story reported: “The French company ... has been warned it must meet a September deadline to submit its design work plans for the next two years.” The June 16 article said Morrison had “candid talks” with Macron and raised his dissatisfaction with the submarine program’s progress.

So while Macron knew France’s contract was likely to survive past September, what Macron mainly didn’t know was that Biden, Blinken, Sullivan were negotiating behind Macron’s back with his allies, Britain and Australia, about replacing the diesel sub project with nuclear technology.

Had Team Biden thought creatively, the United States could have worked out an arrangement with Macron to bring France into the effort in some major face-saving (and also fiscal) way. Indeed, Macron could have even hosted the final meeting and announcement where the leaders of Britain, the U.S. and Australia would unveil their new deal.

Then, the next time Biden posed with Macron and announced, “We are on the same page,” he could finally feel comfortable adding his familiar: “You have my word as a Biden!”

What a concept.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at © 2021 Tribune Content Agency.

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