When French officials erupted in anger last week after being left out of a US-led security pact with Australia and the UK, much of Washington was caught off guard – including President Joe Biden, according to people familiar with his reaction.
Biden had met with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the G7 summit in June but had made no mention of the pending deal to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. Even though he knew the deal would likely deprive France of its own contracts worth tens of billions of dollars, officials say Biden was still unprepared for the fury that erupted in Paris.
After days of angry phone calls and public statements from the French, Macron took the extraordinary step of recalling the French ambassador to the US for the first time in modern history. Biden was receiving regular briefings on the fallout by national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and by Sunday the President told his advisers he wanted to speak with Macron, believing a direct conversation could help smooth things over.
The 30-minute call resulted in Biden essentially having to issue a mea culpa to Macron – a move one White House official acknowledged was not ideal.
The debacle is the latest in a series of foreign policy crises that have erupted over the past several weeks for Biden, ones that both foreign diplomats and US officials have said were completely avoidable. The gaffes have left sources inside and outside the administration frustrated and perplexed, with some even comparing the lapses to what they’d expect from former President Trump.
US and foreign officials say they have been bewildered and appalled by the Biden administration’s two recent, major diplomatic failures – first in the execution of its withdrawal from Afghanistan and then by enraging its oldest ally, France, by keeping the country in the dark about the submarine deal, known as AUKUS.
Some administration officials have countered that the French would have been angry regardless of when and how the US notified them of the deal, with one going so far as to describe the French reaction as a “temper tantrum.”
But many acknowledge that it could have been handled better.
“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told franceinfo radio. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”
These diplomats say there is intense interest in their capitals as to why this is happening, given the fact that Biden and many of his senior officials served in the Obama administration, an experience that should have left them seasoned enough to communicate more clearly, plan more carefully and execute more effectively. But recently, there have been too many surprises, the biggest being the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. The chaotic and deadly withdrawal was also capped by a major tragedy when a US drone strike mistakenly targeted an Afghan NGO worker and killed 10 civilians.
Addressing the nation last month, Biden said his administration had not expected Kabul to fall so quickly. “We were clear-eyed about the risks. We planned for every contingency. But I always promised the American people I would be straight with you. The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.”
One administration official said that despite the criticism around the Afghanistan withdrawal, the administration kept NATO allies abreast of its plans for the withdrawal.
“Not enough people in their chairs”
Some sources pointed to failures in coordination and communication between the National Security Council and the State Department, which is usually the main point of contact for foreign partners. But others said that they believe a key problem has been the lack of Senate-confirmed ambassadors and State Department officials who could serve as a check on the hugely powerful NSC inside the White House.
Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a hearing this week that nearly 80 nominations are still on hold.
“The slow pace and many obstacles to moving nominees is unacceptable,” he said. “It’s dangerous. We’re less safe when our national security agencies are so short staffed. We have to fix this problem.”
One diplomat said that overseas, too, there is a perception that with the agonizingly slow pace of Senate confirmations of State Department officials, some foreign policy decision-making is more concentrated in the NSC. A source close to the White House echoed that assessment, noting that the NSC has tended to “micromanage” important national security decisions primarily because there are simply “not enough people in their chairs.”
The source noted, for example, that Karen Donfried – Biden’s nominee to be Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs – would have been an important voice in shaping the AUKUS deal and avoiding a diplomatic dust-up with France. But Donfried, along with dozens of other nominees, has not yet been confirmed, and the NSC took the lead on the negotiations, several officials said.
“We have an extremely powerful NSC because there are so few confirmed ambassadors and experienced diplomats who can offer an alternate view,” the source said. “It’s not enough to just have done a few years at a think tank.”
Even within the NSC, some voices are more powerful than others, one official said. “The NSC is hugely imbalanced in terms of personalities,” the official said. “On the one hand, you have people like (NSC Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs) Kurt Campbell and (NSC Coordinator for the Middle East) Brett McGurk who are very larger-than-life and powerful, who can communicate with heads of state and have wide ranging contacts in their regions.” They are also politically savvy, the official said.
But as of now, the official noted, there are no real equivalent bigwigs directing the Europe or South and Central Asia portfolios across the administration.
One diplomat said that indeed, a perception among many foreign allies is that inside the NSC, there are a lot of civil servants who are “super brainy” but may lack “political instincts.” This diplomat said it wasn’t clear to European envoys in Washington that the Asia team at the NSC, which worked on the AUKUS deal, even involved or briefed their colleagues who worked on France and Europe.
The confirmation process is, of course, out of Biden’s hands. But many of the nominations have been held up by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz because of the administration’s perceived mishandling of another major foreign policy issue – the Russia-Germany gas pipeline called Nord Stream 2, which Biden decided against sanctioning directly because of how it might impact U.S.-Germany relations. That decision was also driven by the NSC, sources said, and sparked immediate bipartisan backlash.
As such, an ongoing debate among some European diplomats is how much the recent missteps are actually just driven by attitude – the high-handed entitlement of a global superpower – versus a lack of personnel.
“If it’s not a lack of personnel, that’s a very different conversation,” said a second diplomat.
Intense focus on China
US officials and lawmakers told CNN that they believe that, more broadly, the administration’s intensified focus on China has resulted in other crucial issues – like proper planning ahead of the Afghanistan withdrawal and tough diplomatic work with European allies – being neglected.
The White House is working to arrange a summit between Biden and Macron in Europe next month, likely on the margins of the Group of 20 summit in Rome. Biden’s aides had once hoped to arrange an in-person meeting with Xi Jinping at that gathering, in another sign – along with the AUKUS partnership – of Biden’s desire to refocus American foreign policy on countering China. But Xi has signaled he won’t attend the conference in person.
“There are a lot of terrible things happening in the world, most of which are not Joe Biden’s fault, but which do argue for the US doing something bold and beautiful to get our mojo back and reassure friends and allies that the US is willing to play its role,” said Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski, vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who served in the State Department while Biden was vice president.
An erosion of trust
In any case, multiple diplomats said that events in Afghanistan – where the Biden administration pulled out hastily from Bagram Air Base, giving allies little or no warning – and the AUUKUS debacle have badly eroded trust in the US. The chaotic rush of the Afghanistan withdrawal in particular left US allies scrambling to ensure the safety of their own citizens and feeling deeply disadvantaged by the seemingly poor US planning.
While the Biden administration received a warm welcome from international partners during its first few months, foreign diplomats are now second-guessing their assumption that the Biden administration will be tremendously better than the Trump administration across the board, multiple European diplomats told CNN.
There is a real concern, for example, following the AUKUS debacle, that the US might step in and steal military deals from Europe, one diplomat said. (The EU is the second largest arms trader in the world after the US, according to a September 2020 statement by the European Parliament.)
The lapses have been all the more shocking, the diplomats say, because the Biden administration was seen as more competent and sympathetic than the Trump administration.
“It’s not the decision-making style we expected,” one diplomat said.