U.S. President Joe Biden launched his whirlwind European diplomatic tour on a conciliatory note, saying Friday that the rollout of a security deal between the United States, Britain and Australia that cut out longtime ally France was “clumsy.”
“What happened was, to use an English phrase – what we did was clumsy,” Biden said. “It was not done with a lot of grace,” he acknowledged, next to French President Emanuel Macron in Rome ahead of the G-20 summit. The two spoke to reporters following their meeting which was notably held at Villa Bonaparte, the French Embassy to the Vatican, instead of a neutral venue.
The Indo-Pacific AUKUS security deal provides Australia with U.S. nuclear-powered submarines. But buying U.S. subs meant Canberra cancelled the $65 billion deal it previously made with Paris for traditional submarines.
The diplomatic fallout was swift: Paris temporarily recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, saying they were not consulted in advance of the AUKUS deal.
“I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not coming through,” Biden said Friday. “Honest to God, I did not know that you had not been.”
This modest concession matters, said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and the Americas program at Chatham House.
"It's pretty clear that both Biden and Macron have a lot to lose and wish this relationship to work,” she said. “So, they are finding ways to signal that, including in this case an acknowledgment that stops short of an apology.”
Biden earlier committed to supporting France in their counterterrorism effort in the Sahel, where instability triggers waves of African migrants to aim for Europe.
“Clearly the U.S. made a tough call on how to deal with France in the run-up to this decision and, ultimately, the AUKUS partnership stands and France is outside of it," Vinjamuri said.
Other key meetings
Earlier Friday, Biden met with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a potential key ally in transatlantic relations at a time when German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to leave office and Macron remains politically embattled at home.
They and other leaders will gather at the G-20 summit of the world’s wealthiest nations, hosted this year by Italy, which begins Saturday.
“Italy really is an anchor in southeastern Europe for the United States,” said Rachel Ellehuus, deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The White House said Biden thanked Draghi for Italy’s support following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, including by temporarily housing more than 4,000 Afghans who were on route to the U.S. in August. The leaders discussed challenges to security in the Mediterranean region and reaffirmed the importance of NATO’s efforts to deter and defend against threats.
Biden is also expected to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the summit’s sidelines. Erdogan recently threatened to expel the U.S. and nine other Western ambassadors over their support of a jailed Turkish philanthropist over charges of espionage, terrorism and attempts to overthrow the government – allegations that Western observers have called absurd.
“This meeting is important for President Biden to send some messages to Turkey about what is and is not acceptable behavior from a NATO ally, what his expectations are for Turkey being a partner in everything from follow-on security challenges from Afghanistan to Turkey's role in the Black Sea region and Turkey's performance in NATO,” Ellehuus said.
Observers, journalists and international partners have repeatedly asked when Biden will meet one-on-one with the leader of the country the U.S. considers its main adversary: China. But Chinese President Xi Jinping will not attend the G-20 summit in person, nor the climate conference that will follow immediately after, in Glasgow.
The White House has confirmed Biden and Xi will meet virtually before the year’s end.