It was meant to be one of Scott Morrison’s crowning glories as Prime Minister.
Inking a new partnership with the big boys in the United States and United Kingdom and getting some new official backup in response to the simmering tension with China.
The AUKUS deal would result in Australia getting some of the world’s most advanced and secretive defence technology in nuclear submarines and was hailed by some as our most important post-war security environment.
But the Prime Minister got barely a few hours to bask in the glow before copping a furious response from France over the decision to unexpectedly tear up a $90 billion Naval Group contract to build 12 conventional submarines.
Mr Morrison got just days to enjoy the positive press at home before France withdrew its ambassador from Canberra, and his foreign minister, Marise Payne, was suddenly excluded from a planned meeting with her French counterpart in New York.
The PM then hopped a plane to New York, flying into an international storm of his own making and joining the AUKUS leaders as they again weathered some unfiltered French fury.
A “stab in the back”. “Betrayal”. “Lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt.” Anger from French politicians and diplomats has been spectacular and headline-grabbing.
Mr Morrison said it would have been “naive to think a decision of this nature was not going to cause disappointment” to France. But the reaction from Paris, which seems to only be getting angrier as time goes on, has overshadowed what was meant to be a triumphant week on the international stage, a welcome circuit breaker and chance to reset after mounting scandals back home.
In a week in which he was meant to be showing off his diplomatic chops alongside world leaders, Mr Morrison admitted he hasn’t even been able to get French President Emmanuel Macron on the phone to explain or apologise. Talk about an AUK-ward admission.
The PM has been putting a positive face on his trip, and it’s not difficult for him to spin it as a successful one so far.
Mr Morrison has already had one-on-one meetings with Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, US House speaker Nancy Pelosi and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.
He pledged millions of vaccines to an American vaccine equity campaign, and chaired a new statement from the little-known MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia) grouping.
Mr Morrison is also attending his first in-person leaders’ meeting of The Quad, the re-energised alliance between Australia, the US, India and Japan – which, just like AUKUS, is squarely aimed at countering rising Chinese posturing in the Indo-Pacific region.
Even against the backdrop of COVID struggles and crushing lockdowns back home, and the unexpected earthquake and anti-vaxxer protests in Melbourne this week, a road trip like this is usually a welcome change of pace for a prime minister looking to reset the conversation.
But France and its submarines, the conversation he wanted to leave behind in Sydney, has followed him all the way to North America.
“Why didn’t you flag this earlier with France? Are you sorry? How did you think this would go? Will this affect the European Union free trade agreement?”: These questions have dogged Mr Morrison across the Pacific Ocean.
He was hoping to interest would die down and he could wait it out over time, but with the rage from Paris only seeming to grow as days went by, the PM has started treating France like an upset lover.
“I understand the disappointment,” Mr Morrison said from New York on Tuesday.
“We will be patient about that.”
Patience may prove a necessary virtue. By Thursday, President Biden had managed to get President Macron on the phone to apologise for the US keeping France in the dark on the nuclear subs deal, but Mr Morrison said he hadn’t had the same luck.
“The opportunity for that call is not yet. But we’ll be patient,” Mr Morrison said when asked in Washington if he’d reached out to President Macron.
“We understand their disappointment and that is the way you manage difficult issues.”
He said he was “glad” Mr Biden had managed to link up a phone call. But even in that call, the US and French leaders said “the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies”.
Mr Morrison said the situation between those two nations was different, as they were more linked on national security through the NATO agreement. But the subtext of the Biden-Macron joint statement was clear.
“I look forward and when the time is right and when the opportunity presents that we will have a similar discussion,” Mr Morrison said, still hoping for his own phone call.
“Apples and pears” was how he described some parallels drawn between the subs deal and the European free trade deal. But trade minister Dan Tehan, being dispatched to Italy, France and the United Kingdom next week to do some in-person negotiating on the FTA, will be expecting a potentially frosty reception.
Drama over the subs snub is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, even after Mr Morrison manages to get President Macron on the phone. But among closer friends in Washington for the Quad meeting, he’ll be hoping for a smoother week.
On the agenda? According to Mr Morrison, he hopes to “further strengthen our security and economic partnership” and “our commitment to the Indo-Pacific COVID-19 recovery, and our efforts towards peace, prosperity and stability in our region”.
“The Quad represents four great democracies working in partnership for an Indo-Pacific region that is open, inclusive, resilient and anchored by shared principles,” he said before leaving.
Expect the subs deal to make some appearance too.