Subplots are meant to be subtle, barely seen. They are certainly not meant to be dominant.
Scott Morrison’s reluctant European journey had a subplot. He did not see it at first. Remember, no one else saw it either.
Until then was the plot, written by the French president with a much larger agenda.
The Prime Minister’s journey should always be one he should endure, rather than enjoy. But not for the immediately apparent reasons.
Morrison had been forced to burn the coalition’s climate change data before leaving Australia: having a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 was seen as minimum access to the G20 summit in Rome and the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.
The prime minister probably expected a week-long, abrasive defense of why he would not commit to a higher 2030 emission reduction target.
Then the subplot came steaming unseen below the horizon.
Morrison fell into a trap
Within an hour or two of the Prime Minister’s plane landing in Rome, US President Joe Biden showed up with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.
Before the cameras, Biden sympathized with the French president over Australia’s handling of a canceled submarine contract. It had been “clumsy” and lacked grace, the president said.
Biden’s candid chat with Macron about the sunken submarine contract was not just a public scolding out of Australia’s handling of the case.
It was a demonstration by the US President that America looks beyond its AUKUS “forever” friends of Australia and Britain, and that some of its allies are more equal than others.
In particular, a nuclear-armed 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 US-led regional opposition to China.
Australian Prime Ministers have long rejoiced in the steadfastness of American friendship, but it has always been an unequal relationship. Donald Trump may be the latest president to champion the “America First” stance, but it has always been there.
And Morrison has discovered that the courtesy of Trump’s successors only sighs the ruthless self-interest at the heart of the American project.
Restoring alignment with a strategic ally in Europe has proven to be more valuable to America than any benefit it might have gained by overthrowing a $ 90 billion naval contract.
“Let me be absolutely clear. Australia has made the right decision when it comes to our defense interests in moving forward with a nuclear-powered submarine capability and doing so in partnership with the United States and Britain,” Morrison told reporters in Rome.
“Of course it’s a difficult decision. We were very conscious that it would lead to a deep disappointment. But you have to make the right decision for Australia. And that was exactly what we did.”
But Biden bothered Morrison with his unflattering assessment of French support, even though (as Australian officials insist) the United States was kept fully informed at all times.
Yet the underplot only worsened for Morrison.
When ABC intercepted Macron after the press conference on Sunday in Rome, the French president took only a few seconds to decide that he would use the opportunity to express what he really thought about the prime minister.
In fact, if his nation’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 was asked.
“I do not think I know.”
The disagreement suddenly took on a toxic personal dimension, exacerbated by the rough reaction of the Morrison camp – leaking a text message from Macron to the Prime Minister from September.
If it was a tactical shot across French bows, it was misdirected. It showed a vengeful and short-sighted superficiality at a time when Australia needed to show the opposite.
The Prime Minister may have felt deeply hurt by Macron’s regret – perhaps rightly so – but this was a time to act in a way that reflected the declared high-profile pursuit of national interest.
Morrison did not see the trap.
France’s bitterness towards the United States and Australia after the sinking in September of the subs agreement began as a major Gallic outrage, but over the past six weeks it has become an expert exercise in leverage.
Macron has a price, and it’s up to Morrison to find it
A suspicious but shrewd Macron now seeks to turn the submarine quarrel into the opening of a major power game.
Macron may despise Morrison, but the Australian Prime Minister can offer nothing for comfort. So so far, Morrison is at least the subject of his mockery.
As for France’s transatlantic allies, Macron felt deeply betrayed by Biden.
In 2019, after four years of US strategic withdrawal under Trump, Macron warned European nations that they could no longer trust the United States to defend NATO allies.
“What we are experiencing at the moment is NATO’s brain death,” Macron told The Economist.
Before the dust of submarines, Macron had pushed for a European military force to operate independently of NATO, as part of a broader vision of establishing European strategic autonomy from the United States.
As the New York Times explains: “This, [Macron] argues, should lead the EU to something in the direction of a middle ground between two great powers of the 21st century, the United States and China, bound to America through values and long friendship, but engaging rather than confronting China. “
The Americans and many European nations committed to the transatlantic security that the United States has expanded are concerned that NATO will not be undermined.
So when the French submarine contract was sunk under Biden’s gaze, which had promised to reaffirm American credibility and global leadership, Macron would have spied on the opportunity when his temper cooled.
And it seems that Biden is now ready to provide conditional support for a European military force that complements NATO. The United States will also offer France counter-terrorism in West Africa.
The back-to-back bonhomie, which was exhibited between Macron and Biden at the G20, has come at an American price dictated by Macron, which may in part explain why Biden may have diplomatically thrown Morrison under the bus.
And what price does Macron have in mind for Morrison, besides mockery?
The French president’s statement following his stinging phone call to Morrison shortly before the prime minister left Canberra for Rome suggests he has not yet had one in mind. And he has posed a challenge to the Prime Minister to find one.
“It is now up to the Australian Government to propose tangible actions that embody the political will of Australia’s highest authorities to redefine the basis of our bilateral relations and continued joint action in the Indo-Pacific,” the statement from the Élysée Palace read.
It is possible that Macron is simply dismissing Morrison as an Australian prime minister with a US big brother complex.
But after the leak of President Macron’s private text message, the price of peace with Paris has grown exponentially.