The subplots are meant to be subtle, barely noticeable. They are certainly not meant to become dominant.
Scott Morrison’s reluctant European trip had a subplot. He didn’t see it at first. Be careful, no one else has seen it either.
Up to was the plot, written by the French president with a much larger agenda.
The Prime Minister’s trip was always going to be a trip he would have to endure rather than savor. But not for the immediately apparent reasons.
Morrison had been forced to polish the Coalition’s climate change credentials before leaving Australia: pledging to net zero emissions by 2050 was seen as minimal entry for the G20 Rome summit and talks on the COP26 climate in Glasgow.
The prime minister has likely planned a fierce week-long defense of why he would not commit to a higher emissions reduction target for 2030.
Then the subplot appeared below the horizon.
Morrison fell into a trap
An hour or two after the Prime Minister’s plane landed in Rome, US President Joe Biden appeared alongside his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.
In front of the cameras, Biden sympathized with the French president over Australia’s handling of a canceled submarine contract. It had been “awkward” and lacked grace, the president said.
Biden’s frank conversation with Macron about the sunken submarine contract was not just a public rebuke of Australia’s handling of the case.
It was a demonstration by the US President that America sees beyond its “forever” AUKUS friends of Australia and the UK, and that some of its allies are more equal than others.
Above all, a nuclear ally like France which plays a key role in Europe’s foil against Russia and whose strategic and naval presence in the Pacific serves to strengthen the regional fight led by the United States against China.
Australian prime ministers have long reveled in the firmness of American friendship, but it has always been an uneven relationship. Donald Trump may be the most recent president to champion the “America First” stance, but he’s always been there.
And Morrison discovered that the politeness of Trump’s successor only sweetens the ruthless interest at the heart of the American project.
Reaffirming alignment with a strategic ally in Europe has proven to be more valuable to America than any benefit it might have gained from the reversal of a $ 90 billion naval contract.
“Let me be very clear. Australia made the right decision regarding our defense interests by moving forward with a nuclear-powered submarine capability and doing so in partnership with states. United and the UK, ”Morrison told reporters in Rome. .
“Of course, it’s a difficult decision. We were very aware that it would cause deep disappointment. But you have to make the right decision for Australia. And that’s exactly what we did.”
But Biden embarrassed Morrison with his unflattering assessment of the French snub, even though (as Australian officials insist) the United States has been fully briefed throughout.
Still, the subplot only got worse for Morrison.
When the ABC intercepted Macron’s post-press press conference in Rome on Sunday, the French president only took a few seconds to decide he would take the opportunity to express what he really thought about the prime minister.
Indeed, if his country’s submarines have the speed and precision with which he targeted Morrison’s character, they should be the most feared on the high seas.
“Do you think he lied to you?” Macron has been questioned.
“I don’t think so, I know.”
The submarine dispute suddenly took on a venomous personal dimension, made worse by Camp Morrison’s crass response – the leak of a text message from Macron to the prime minister from September.
If it was a tactical shot through the French arcs, it was misdirected. He displayed a short-term, vengeful lack of depth at a time when Australia needed to show otherwise.
The prime minister may have felt deeply hurt by Macron’s insults – perhaps rightly so – but now was the time to act in a way that reflected the declared noble pursuit of the national interest.
Morrison didn’t see the trap.
France’s bitterness towards the United States and Australia after the submarine agreement sank in September began as a great Gallic outrage, but over the past six weeks it has turned into an exercise expert in leverage.
Macron has a price, and it’s up to Morrison to find it
A wary but shrewd Macron is now looking to make the submarine feud the opening bet of a bigger power game.
Macron may despise Morrison, but the Australian Prime Minister can offer nothing of consolation. So for now, at least, Morrison is the object of his scorn.
As for France’s transatlantic ally, Macron felt deeply betrayed by Biden.
In 2019, after four years of US strategic retreat under Trump, Macron warned European nations that they could no longer count on America to defend NATO allies.
“What we are currently experiencing is NATO brain death”, Macron told The Economist.
Prior to the dusting on the submarines, Macron had pushed for a European military force that would operate independently of NATO, as part of a larger vision to establish European strategic autonomy from the United States.
As the New York Times explains: “This, [Macron] argues, should lead the European Union to something like a middle road between two great powers of the 21st century, the United States and China, linked to America by values and a long friendship, but engaging rather than confront China. “
The Americans, and many European countries concerned with the transatlantic security extended by the United States, are concerned that NATO is not undermined.
So when the contract for the French submarines was sunk under the gaze of Biden, who had promised to reaffirm American confidence and world leadership, Macron allegedly spied on the opportunity, once his temper cooled.
And it looks like Biden is now ready to give conditional support to a European military force that complements NATO. The United States will also offer France counterterrorism assistance in West Africa.
The stunning bonhomie on display between Macron and Biden at the G20 came at an American price dictated by Macron, perhaps explaining in part why Biden could have diplomatically thrown Morrison under the bus.
And what price does Macron have in mind for Morrison, other than derision?
The French president’s statement after his thorny phone call with Morrison shortly before the prime minister left Canberra for Rome suggests he doesn’t yet have one in mind. And he challenged the prime minister to find one.
“It is now up to the Australian government to propose concrete actions which embody the political will of the highest Australian authorities to redefine the bases of our bilateral relationship and to continue joint action in the Indo-Pacific”, we can read in the press release from the Élysée.
It is possible that Macron is simply dismissing Morrison as Australian Prime Minister with an American big brother complex.
But after President Macron’s private text message leaked, the price of peace with Paris has increased exponentially.