The forming of the Australia-UK-US (Aukus) military alliance in the Pacific shows how everything Trump can say, Biden can do. The problem is, Biden isn’t doing it very well.
Biden’s administration, like Trump’s, is committed to building its Pacific alliances while sustaining Nato. Yet on Australia as in Afghanistan, the Biden team are doing exactly what they accused Trump of: unpicking the frayed bonds of Nato without a clear idea of what might replace it.
The government has three tasks: to keep American workers at work, win contracts for American exports, and secure America’s interests overseas. Two cheers for Biden for getting the Trump memo on the first two points. But the Aukus deal is deaf to the third point, which is likely to harm America’s foreign interests.
Emanuel Macron has responded to Australia swapping French-made diesel submarines for American-made nuclear subs by treating the US like an enemy. The French ambassador to Washington has been ‘withdrawn for consultations’. The French foreign minister has accused the US of a ‘stab in the back’.
The French have a word for it: pique. Emanuel Macron is piqued as hell. Fair enough: France and Australia made a $90-billion deal in 2016. Then again, Naval Group, the French signatory, had fallen behind and costs had overrun. All is fair in the business of war.
Macron’s reaction suggests that the Australians were right to cancel their contract for French subs. For it confirms that France is as France does, which means that France is impelled to fall out with les Anglo-Saxons now and then. It’s not just pique or honour. It’s history and geography, two subjects which are out of favour in our digital world, but which remain at the heart of world affairs. It might even be in France’s interest to behave as they are doing.
The French have a distinct civilisation, and one of its distinguishing features is its sharp difference from English civilisation – a difference so clear in French eyes that most French people will laugh at the very idea of ‘English civilisation’, just as they might crack up at the notion of ‘German comedy’ or ‘Italian accountancy’.
The French do not laugh, however, at the globalisation of English civilisation. The English rampaged across the globe in the age of empires, and the result is the sleeping giant we call the Anglosphere. The English-speaking peoples share a common past, a common language, and similar legal systems. They share family ties, and some of them even share a common monarch.
Family ties count for a lot when you’re forming defensive alliances. France has similar connections with what it calls la Francophonie, most of which are in the Pacific. When Tahiti goes nuclear, we can expect that French companies will win the contracts. As with France, Australia’s move to its closest military allies – the US and UK – is just history and geography making themselves manifest.
The problem for France – and by extension Nato and the US too – is that history and geography are playing out on France’s doorstep too. Russia has not loomed so large over western Europe since the end of the Cold War, with France’s partner Germany tilting towards it. Britain is no longer anyone’s partner in Europe. The underpinnings of Nato’s Atlantic and western European flank are weaker than they have ever been.
The contempt with which the Biden team treated its allies in the withdrawal from Afghanistan gave notice to the Europeans that they’re on their own. While Trump merely demanded the Europeans sustain Nato by spending their promised share, Biden has shown the US doesn’t care at all. The result is dissension and disorder among Europe’s biggest Nato members – problems the Biden administration has dramatically worsened, and which Macron is now worsening even more dramatically.
Sir John Seeley said the British acquired an empire in ‘a fit of absence of mind’. Centuries on, no president is as absent-minded as Joe Biden. The US may wish to build up its Pacific alliances, but the cost will be Nato.
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