What are the lasting impacts of the AUKUS agreement?

Drawing on their International Affairs article, Jamal Barnes and Samuel Makinda outline the effect of AUKUS on Australia-France relations and the liberal order.

4 minute READ

Almost a year after the surprise announcement of the AUKUS treaty, its full diplomatic implications are still being understood. The security cooperation agreement between Australia, the US and the UK caused outrage in France and was a notable source of discord between states that see themselves as defenders of the liberal international order.

In this interview Jamal Barnes and Samuel Makinda discuss their recent article in International Affairs and assess the effect of the agreement on relationships between its signatories and France and the EU, the potential for reconciliation in the treaty’s aftermath, as well as the implications it has for trust in world politics.  

What was the AUKUS treaty and why did Australia sign it?

The AUKUS treaty is an agreement between Australia, the US and the UK. Signed in 2021, it facilitates cooperation on security issues in the Indo-Pacific between the three countries – specifically, it concerns the sharing of ‘military capabilities and critical technologies, such as cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and undersea domains’.

A key aspect is that Australia will purchase nuclear-fuelled submarines from either the US or UK. Australia decided to purchase nuclear-powered submarines – and reneged on its 2016 agreement to purchase French-built diesel-propelled submarines – because it believed that the French-made submarines were no longer fit for purpose.

The AUKUS agreement reflects the increased attention that the US, UK and Australia are paying to the Indo-Pacific and their commitment to constraining China’s exercise of power in the region.

However, the agreement is about more than submarines. Although Australia, the UK and US argue that AUKUS is designed to defend the rules-based international order and help ‘preserve security and stability in the Indo-Pacific’, AUKUS has been largely seen as a response to the rise of China and its military activities in the region. The AUKUS agreement reflects the increased attention that the US, UK and Australia are paying to the Indo-Pacific and their commitment to constraining China’s exercise of power in the region.

What were the effects of the AUKUS treaty on relations between Australia and France?

It led to a serious diplomatic rift. Australian officials, including former Prime Minister Morrison, had visited President Macron in France and told him nothing about AUKUS. Morrison had assured Macron in June 2021 while former Australian foreign and defence ministers had assured their French counterparts that Australia was fully committed to the purchase of French submarines just two weeks before the announcement of AUKUS.

France was not only left out of talks but was also betrayed by a country it considered a close ally.

When French officials found out about AUKUS on the day it was announced on 15 September 2021, they declared publicly that they had been betrayed and stabbed in the back. Not only had France built its relationship with Australia on trust, but its relationship was more than just about submarines. It was designed to be central to France’s 50-year engagement strategy in the Indo-Pacific. However, France was not only left out of talks but was also betrayed by a country it considered a close ally.

France responded by temporarily recalling its ambassador and stated that it would ‘redefine’ its relationship with Australia. It did not say that it would not work with Australia, but rather downgraded its relationship to one where it would only do so on a case-by-case basis.

In your article you mention that the AUKUS treaty was seen as a betrayal of trust by France in particular. Why use the word ‘betrayal’?

The word betrayal is accurate because Australia’s actions went beyond simply cancelling a business contract. Australia breached France’s trust. Not all agreements involve trust. Some are driven by self-interest while others are simply legal contracts. When these agreements are broken, the usual response is feelings of disappointment and a belief that one party is unreliable and has not lived up to its end of the agreement.

However, when diplomatic partnerships involve trust, they often contain an emotional element. A key element of trust is that one party makes itself vulnerable to another in the expectation that neither party will take advantage. When that trust is breached, the response is different from a breach of contract.

It involves feelings of betrayal as deeper emotional factors are involved. This could be seen in President Macron’s anger, and his and other French officials’ willingness to publicly call Prime Minister Morrison a liar who had stabbed France in the back. If the previous France-Australia agreement was simply a legal contract, it would have been difficult to explain the emotional element of this diplomatic fallout.

How did the signing of the AUKUS treaty affect wider relations between members of AUKUS and EU member states?

The EU, like France, felt betrayed by the AUKUS announcement. Despite being a key ally of the US, Australia, and the UK, it was left out of AUKUS discussions, and was not aware of the agreement until it was announced in the media.

For the EU, this was the latest in a long line of recent policy betrayals that had left it uncertain if it could trust key allies on important issues.

What made this worse was that the EU was in the process of announcing its Indo-Pacific strategy, which was characterized as ‘maybe one of the [EU’s] most important geopolitical documents’ by High Representative for Foreign and Security Affairs, Josep Borrell. For the EU, this was the latest in a long line of recent policy betrayals that had left it uncertain if it could trust key allies on important issues. The result was greater calls from within the EU to more forcefully pursue ‘strategic autonomy’, meaning a more assertive and independent EU foreign policy.

Do betrayals of trust affect the health of the liberal international order?

Yes, they can. While it is common for leaders in liberal democracies to lie to their own people, lying to the leaders of other countries can have serious repercussions for the norms, rules and institutions of international society. A key aspect of international society is the ‘presumption of trust’ that facilitates legal compliance and diplomatic cooperation.

Without this presumption it is difficult for states to engage in long term partnerships or have confidence that diplomatic agreements will be upheld. In our article, we highlight how Australia’s violation of a particular norm, that agreements must be kept, has undermined this presumption of trust. This norm not only helps build trust between states, but also contributes to the maintenance of international order by helping to support the presumption of trust in international society.

Australia reneging cont.

Australia’s reneging on the French submarine contract posed a challenge to the rules-based order because it undermined this norm. Australia argued that it was justified in breaking a promise to France because Australia saw it in its ‘national interest’ to do so. If every country followed Australia’s lead and reneged on promises made to other countries for this reason, trust would be thin in international society. This would make it difficult for states to cooperate with one another which, in turn, would weaken the rules-based order over time by undermining diplomatic partnerships and conformity to legal and diplomatic agreements.

What will it take to mend the damage done to Australia-France relations? 

While it might take time for Australian-French relations to return to where they were in August 2021, there are signs that leaders in both countries are willing to work together. With the election of a new Labor Government in Australia under the leadership of Anthony Albanese on 21 May 2022, efforts have begun to ‘reset relations’ between the two countries.

Within five weeks of coming to power, Albanese visited France after an invitation from President Macron to explore ways of moving forward. Albanese stressed the importance of respect and trust in the bilateral relationship and provided compensation of $830 million to the French Naval Group for cancelling the submarine contract.

Albanese was warmly welcomed by Macron and when the media asked Macron whether Albanese should apologize, Macron responded: ‘We always think about the future, not the past. He’s [Albanese’s] not responsible for what happened.’ However, it is still unclear whether the relationship will return to the level it was prior to the fallout, and whether France will be able to trust Australia again on sensitive issues of national security.