A Bald Man Loses His Toupee
The Australian submarine deal left France in the dust, but the French may have some wisdom for us about meddling abroad.
“The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb.” So commented the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges regarding the small war that pitted Argentina against Great Britain in 1982.
Something similar might be said about the recent tiff between France and “the Anglo-Saxons,” the dismissive term that Charles de Gaulle used when referring to the United States and the United Kingdom. What we have here is a bald man highly incensed that two thieves—Joe Biden and Boris Johnson—have stolen his toupee. And with that, a carefully cultivated image is exposed as sheer fakery.
The circumstances of this thievery are now well known. With French president Emmanuel Macron kept very much in the dark, the Anglo-Saxons negotiated a multi-billion dollar deal to outfit the Australian navy with nuclear submarines. As soon as this agreement was announced, the Aussies reneged on a prior multi-billion dollar contract to purchase conventional subs from La Belle France.
The financial blow to the French military-industrial complex hurt. Public humiliation at the hands of the Anglo-Saxons hurt much more. Here was an unmistakable indication of where France stands today in the ranking of world powers—not even high enough to be consulted by its allies, much less to have its own interests taken into account.
Macron’s government retaliated by recalling the French ambassadors to Washington and Canberra. It’s hard to imagine that the move caused the U.S. president or his Australian counterpart to lose any sleep. That the Anglo-Saxons seemingly shrugged off the entire matter only deepened the French sense of mortification.
The last hundred years have not been kind to French claims of greatness. Victory in the First World War came at a cost so exorbitant that we may date the nation’s inexorable decline from the fateful decision to mobilize for war in August 1914. In subsequent decades, a series of cataclysmic military failures ensued. In 1940, the Wehrmacht thoroughly defeated the once-mighty French army in a matter of weeks. In 1954, the Viet Minh ousted France from Indochina, its principal imperial outpost in the Far East. In 1962, the Algerian National Liberation Front forced France to withdraw from what had been an integral part of the Republic itself—the equivalent of an indigenous uprising obliging Washington to recognize Hawaii as a fully sovereign nation-state.
From time-to-time, however, French leaders have mustered a residue of wisdom and prudence. In 2003, for example, France refused to support the United States in its foolish and illegal preventive war aimed at ousting Saddam Hussein from power in Baghdad.
In February 2003, French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, speaking to the United Nations Security Council, described France as “an old country” situated in a continent that had “known war, occupation, [and] barbarity.” No one, he warned, could claim with confidence that invading Iraq “would lead to a safer, more just, more stable world,” emphasizing that “war is always the sanction of failure.”
Critics at the time dismissed all of this as typical French cynicism, if not blatant cowardice. Warmongering American politicians and commentators derided the French for their refusal to accompany the United States on this march to folly. Whatever motivated de Villepin to voice his warning, the George W. Bush administration and others gung-ho for war should have listened.
I cannot help but wonder if the Australian submarine deal marks a large step forward on another march to folly. We need not weep just because France lost out on a lucrative business deal. But the issue at stake is about much more than sourcing submarines. It’s about the prospects of creating safety and stability in what the Pentagon refers to as the “Indo-Pacific.” The Anglo-Saxons could well be on course to repeat their blunder of roughly two decades ago when they ignored France and invaded Iraq.
Back then, the United States—with Britain a very junior partner—embarked upon an unnecessary war of choice in the Persian Gulf. Promising peace, stability, and good things for the Iraqi people, they bequeathed to their countrymen and to the region as a whole a whirlwind of violence. By opting out, France—whatever its motives—had demonstrated remarkable foresight.
Although the comparison may be less than fully precise, Anglo-Saxon enthusiasm for selling Australia top-of-the-line nuclear submarines may be likened to the invasion of Iraq. It is a leap into the void, preemptive action that we may one day come to regret.
Anglo-Saxon leaders in Washington and London insist that the submarine deal has nothing to do with the People’s Republic of China. That is a bald-faced lie. The deal has everything to do with China. It marks a large step toward a policy of military confrontation all too likely to culminate in a Cold War with China—or something worse.
In Washington’s view, therefore, enhancing Anglo-Saxon military clout in Asia today takes precedence over maintaining friendly relations with European allies of diminishing importance. To put the matter crudely, Aussies speak our language; the French don’t. Asia is the future; Europe lies in the past.
But the shift in strategic priorities in which Washington appears to be engaged may well prove to be short-sighted.
Think for a moment about the challenges facing Americans today: internal division, grotesque political dysfunction, economic inequality on an egregious scale, porous borders, an ongoing pandemic, environmental catastrophes, a climate crisis, the loss of privacy. We don’t need and cannot afford a repetition of the Cold War.
When looking abroad for heroes, Americans have long shown an affinity for Anglo-Saxons. We prefer Churchill to de Gaulle, probably the only French statesman of the past hundred years that more than a few Americans can even identify.
Yet embedded in France’s century of recurring misfortune are lessons to which Americans today should attend. The overarching lesson may be simply stated: Nothing more quickly or decisively undermines national greatness than needless or unsuccessful wars. On that score, based on the record of recent years, the United States may already be pressing its luck.
Might it be that our own toupee is not as securely attached as we imagine?
Andrew Bacevich, TAC’s writer-at-large, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.