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When Emmanuel Macron got angry at the surprise announcement of a new U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy, some Washington officials may have thought the French president should go cry a river. But according to the U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, the more important point was that U.S. President Joe Biden never told Macron to jump in a lake.
“When our French counterparts raise concerns, when others raise questions, our answer was not … ‘go jump in a lake,’” which is how “other previous American administrations might have responded,” Sullivan told reporters in Brussels on Thursday. He didn’t need to mention former President Donald Trump by name.
Describing the Biden administration’s response to the French dismay, Sullivan said: “It was to act decisively, and I believe quite effectively in engaging directly with the French over a course of a very short period of time to establish a conversation between the two presidents, produce a joint statement, generate the return of their ambassador, and then generate a sustained diplomatic conversation.”
He noted that on Friday he would become the third high-level envoy to visit Paris from Washington this week alone, with Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland there on Monday and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday. Macron this week said he was not yet convinced that the relationship was back on track.
The new Indo-Pacific partnership between Australia, the U.K. and U.S. — known as AUKUS — also led to criticism from EU leaders, which Sullivan said was dealt with through “early and aggressive outreach to member states and to the Union itself that culminated in my visit today.”
During a roundtable discussion with reporters, Sullivan was challenged several times over allegations by European allies that Washington does not consult sufficiently, and that Biden specifically disregarded misgivings over the plan to withdraw from Afghanistan.
On Afghanistan, Sullivan insisted that there had been sufficient consultation but that the Europeans simply disagreed with Biden’s decision.
“If you look at the pattern of consultation on Afghanistan, at the ministerial level, at the senior White House level, at the presidential level over the course of weeks, and leading up to the April 16th speech the president gave announcing his decision on Afghanistan, it was intensive, it was sustained, it was systematic,” Sullivan said. “And I think the real issue is that many allies disagreed with the result of the decision.”
He added, “But I actually believe that the form and substance of that consultation was quite intensive. And frankly, the reason it took until mid-April for the president to reach his final decision was in part because he was factoring in the feedback of allies, who indicated that they had differences of opinion about how to proceed with the troop presence in Afghanistan.”
Allies at NATO may remember that sequence of events somewhat differently, with Blinken arriving in Brussels to give them very short notice of Biden’s impending withdrawal plan. But on AUKUS, Sullivan acknowledged that the White House dropped the ball.
“With respect to AUKUS, you know, we have said that we could have improved the method of consultation around that,” he said.
Overall, he insisted that the Biden administration was committed to working closely with partners, and he even cited examples of when EU leaders were right and Washington was wrong — at least when Washington was controlled by Trump and when the EU was agreeing with decisions that Biden, Sullivan and others had a hand in during the Obama administration.
This included the EU’s strong defense of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA.
“Europeans were right, that we shouldn’t have left the JCPOA,” Sullivan said. “They were right that we shouldn’t have left the Paris Climate Agreement. I would say they were right, more right than wrong, many of them about the likely costs and consequences of the invasion of Iraq. So those are examples relating to use of force, climate change, and nuclear proliferation.”
He said the current state of transatlantic relations was far better than has been portrayed in recent weeks.
“My view is, actually if you look at the sum total of how our administration has dealt, both with the upsides — the Trade and Technology Council, Boeing-Airbus deal, the G7 communique, the US-EU summit, the NATO summit this year — and with the challenges, it reflects a complete commitment to diplomacy, to consultation, and it leverages personal relationships that have been built over time, that have been able to sustain us through difficult periods,” he said.
“The president’s own relationships and own credibility have been a huge asset in this regard,” Sullivan added. “And so we actually feel like we stand at a moment right now where both in our key bilateral relationships in Europe and in the NATO and EU contexts, we have a chance at a level of intensity and focus and purpose.”
Sullivan also said that Biden was truly willing to support greater European military and defense capabilities, a key point in the joint statement with Macron aimed at smoothing over the AUKUS dispute. But Sullivan said it was crucial to deal in specifics.
“The president in the joint statement with President Macron boiled it down to a simple proposition, which is that the United States recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense that is complementary to NATO,” Sullivan said. “And I think capabilities is the key here. From our perspective, key European countries working to develop enhanced capabilities that are interoperable and can be deployed in service of a larger common mission — this is fundamentally a positive thing from the United States’ perspective.”
But he said the conversation should move away from rhetorical terms like “strategic autonomy” that are often used in the EU to describe efforts to build capabilities independent of the U.S.
“I think the way to carry this forward is to get practical and specific,” Sullivan said. “It is not to talk in terms of the theology of particular terms or the philosophy of particular structures. It is to talk about the what, the how, and the when. And then for the United States to be strongly supportive of that, with that being carried forward.”
He said Washington still wanted to see NATO allies spending more on their militaries, but he added: “Cash is only part of it. It’s who has got what capabilities? And then how are they being contributed in the service of common mission.”
On China policy, Sullivan said that Washington and Europe were moving much closer to a common approach and that some reported differences in perspective were inaccurate.
“I actually believe there is a bit of a caricature in the narrative about the US-European conversation on China — it’s the U.S. is coming in and yelling at the Europeans to be tougher, and they’re not being tougher, and that just does not remotely capture what is actually happening in this conversation,” he said. “What is actually happening in this conversation is a broad recognition across the Atlantic of the deep challenges posed in terms of economic practices, technology, and increasingly security and multiple domains to both Europe and the United States. And then an intensive conversation about the tools, the mix of tools, the sequence of tools, that should be deployed to deal with that.”
Sullivan said that conversations between leaders, including at the G7 summit in the U.K. earlier this year, were helping to bridge any gaps.
“We view this as a process, we view it as an arrow in a direction that is trending towards more convergence between the U.S. and Europe,” Sullivan said. “But to get to that convergence, I think each of us are going to have to understand and make adjustments for the interests and perspectives of the other. And that’s the spirit that the Biden administration is bringing on that issue.”