The forming of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) military alliance in the Pacific shows that 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 talking about: unpicking the already frayed bonds of Nato, and without a clear idea of what might replace it.
It is the government’s task 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. And that is likely to weaken America’s foreign interests.
Emmanuel Macron has responded to Australia swapping a deal for 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 The French ambassador to Washington has been ‘withdrawn for consultations’.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 honor. It’s history and geography, two subjects which are out of favor in our digital world, but which remain at the heart of world affairs. It might even be in France’s interest to behave like this.
The French have a distinct civilization, and one of its distinguishing features that it is sharply different from English civilization — a difference so clear in French eyes that most French people will laugh at the very idea of ‘English civilization’, just as they might double up at the notion of ‘German comedy’ or ‘Italian accountancy’.
The French do not laugh, however, at the globalization of English civilization. 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, and some of them in the Pacific. When the traffic cops of Tahiti go nuclear, we can expect that French companies will win the contracts. Meanwhile, as with France’s pique, Australia’s turn to its closest military allies, the US and UK, is history and geography making themselves manifest.
The problem for France, and by extension Nato and the US too, is that history and geography are also manifesting on France’s doorstep. Russia has not loomed so large over western Europe since the end of the Cold War. Germany, France’s partner in the EU, is tilting towards Russia. 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 during 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.
The British like to say they acquired an empire in ‘a fit of absentmindness’. No president is as absentminded as Joe Biden. And that is how the US, while it builds up its Pacific alliances, is losing Nato.