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On submarines and partnerships

Relationships can be complicated. We start learning that in the sandpit and we never stop.  Hopefully we get better at managing the complexity as we reflect on how we have misread or ignored others’ hopes and expectations of us, or failed to agree a common purpose.

The recent spat with France has created an opportunity for Australia’s leaders to reflect on any actions that might have reduced the damage to the relationship in the lead up to the announcement of the AUKUS partnership. And perhaps there are hints for each of us as to what behaviours are implied between friends, partners and allies.

We don’t pretend this is easy, and can’t begin to understand the intricacies of shifting strategic dynamics and the pressure that places on international alliances. 

But we can pay attention to language. The words chosen by our leaders suggest there are some lessons here on what sustains relationships, even when inevitable shifts happen in the world around us. We will try and minimise the commentary and let the quotes speak for themselves (admittedly emphasising some key words and phrases).


Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.

…we will not be continuing with the [French] Attack class submarine program and have advised Naval Group and of course, the Government of France and President Macron of that decision.”

“[Acting in Australia’s security interests] is something that Australia should always do, and I think that all Australians would expect me to do.”

“Hard decisions have to be made by prime ministers about our interests.”

“That had been communicated very clearly many months ago, we [that is, the Australians] were working through those issues, so to suggest somehow that this decision could have been taken without causing this disappointment, I think, would be very na’ve.”

“I made it very clear that this was a matter that Australia would need to make a decision on in our national interest.”

Spokesperson for Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne –

“Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests.

Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Dan Tehan, as he headed to France after the announcement of the contract cancellation – 

“I’d be more than willing to sit down and talk to our counterpart and work through this issue.” 


France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian –

“At issue here isn’t so much the breach of a weapons contract – even if this harms France – but the breach in confidence between allies. This calls for serious reflection among Europeans on the very concept that we have of alliances and partnerships.

“an alliance, a partnership, that means transparency, predictability. And none of this was there.”

“This is a stab in the back.”

France’s ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault –  

We discover(ed) through the press that the most important person in the Australian government kept us in the dark intentionally until the last minute and was not willing to at least have the decency to enter conversation about the alternative.

“This is not an Australian attitude towards friends. Maybe we’re not friends.

This is not what you do as a partner, and even less for your friends.

“This is sad. It’s not Australia we know, respect, and continue to respect.

“So we thought we were friends … and we were taking care of each other’s backs. Unfortunately, our backs weren’t covered. 

“It was (really) a true relation of partnership, a true relation of confidence, of trust between two major countries in the Indo-Pacific.

“So it was something of a completely different nature than an ordinary contract.

The US and UK were also caught up in France’s displeasure at the AUKUS announcement – what Scott Morrison (perhaps a touch insensitively) called a “forever partnership” no less than 8 times in his initial press conference. (What is meant by ‘forever’ when future strategic shifts inevitably alter the balance of Australia’s national security interest is far from clear). 

It seems that each of the US and UK have been more successful at generating a relational response to French concerns. Following a call between French President Macron and US President Biden, they issued a joint statement that said they had “agreed that the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners“.

The last word perhaps should go to Malcolm Turnbull who was Australian Prime Minister when the French were announced as the successful tenderer in 2016 (who incidentally mentioned that he had spoken with French President Emanuel Macron since the contract cancellation had been announced, which Scott Morrison had been unable to do).

What seems to have been overlooked is that one of our national security assets is trustworthiness.” 

The French ambassador is back in the country, and the hard and incredibly valuable work of rebuilding and clarifying shared interests has begun. But we should expect that it will be some time before we hear the word “alliance” or “partnership” used by the French to describe this particular bilateral relationship.