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16 October, 2021  ▪  Michael Binyon

A fragile unity

What are the reasons for the deterioration of relations between the Western allies

Rarely has a Nato country withdrawn its ambassador from its main Nato ally or from another western democracy. It was a sign of France’s unprecedented fury at the abrupt scrapping of its submarine deal with Washington that President Macron briefly withdrew his ambassadors from America and Australia last month and poured bitter scorn on Britain, his closest Nato partner in Europe.

  In mid-September, with almost no warning, Australia cancelled its order for 12 French-built diesel submarines, worth some $66 billion and announced that it would instead buy more efficient nuclear-powered submarines from Britain and America, while also forming a new security alliance called Aukus (Australia, United Kingdom, United States). The French felt snubbed and humiliated. As well as the massive loss of jobs and export earnings, the cancellation of the order was seen as a sign that the “Anglo-Saxons” were building a new defensive alliance intended to contain the spread of Chinese influence and that France, which has more than a million citizens living in the Indo-Pacific region, was not invited to be part of it.

  Boris Johnson shrugged off the French accusations that Britain was now just a vassal of the US, a junior partner that took its orders from Washington. “Prenez un grip” he said during a visit to Washington – using a mixture of French and English, known as Franglais, calculated to insult and anger the French.

  For Johnson, the Aukus deal was of huge political importance. It usefully overshadowed his visit to Washington, where he went to seek agreement with President Biden on a new UK-US trade agreement, to replace the EU trade deal with America that was no longer valid in Britain after Brexit. Such an agreement is of huge importance to Britain’s attempts to expand its trade with the rest of the world outside the EU and was long touted as one of the benefits of Brexit. But Johnson failed completely. Biden showed no interest in any new trade arrangement with Britain and his aides made it clear that it would be a long while before any new deal was in place.

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  The result was a visible sign that the Biden administration does not place as much value on its relations with Britain as Johnson had hoped. The British prime minister, who enjoyed good relations with Trump, had hoped he could switch allegiance smoothly to the new administration; Biden’s rebuff made it clear that Trump’s successor remains unconvinced by the much touted “special relationship” with Britain. Biden’s coolness was underlined by his insistence, during his meeting with Johnson, that nothing should be done with the vexed EU protocol on the status of Northern Ireland that would jeopardise the peace agreement in Ireland or bring a return to a hard border on the island. This is a difficult issue for Johnson. He has insisted that the protocol – which effectively puts a trade border between Britain and Northern Ireland in the Irish sea – is unworkable and must be changed. For Biden, who often boasts of his family’s Irish origins, Ireland clearly matters more than Britain.

   The Aukus deal at least showed that Britain was still a military power that had close ties to America. London remains an enthusiastic member of Nato. But within the alliance, Britain’s ties with France, once seen as the most important in Europe, have been strained by the Aukus deal. President Macron once described Nato as “brain-dead”. Recently he has spoken of the need for the European Union – without Britain – to build up its own defensive alliance. Britain would remain on the outside, and is therefore strongly opposed to any alliance that might be a rival to Nato.

  For Britain, Nato remains the only viable defensive alliance that can deter Russian aggression and safeguard the independence of the Baltics. The Conservative government believes that any European alternative that does not involve the United States would lack vital capabilities, such as air support, and credibility. A European army would be unlikely to deter Russia if it attempted to put more pressure on Ukraine or step up its military support for the two breakaway provinces of Ukraine. But the American focus is likely to be more and more on the Pacific region rather than on Europe. For the Biden administration, as for Trump, the key security challenge of the future is China rather than Russia. That is why Aukus matters to Washington, as it focuses on deterring China from attempting a forceful unification with Taiwan. Already, strategists in Washington are concerned at increased Chinese readiness to threaten Taiwan, with regular overflights by jet fighters and a more belligerent rhetoric from Beijing.

  Biden wants to show that America is back on the world stage, after four years of increasing US isolationism under Trump. But the Afghanistan debacle has strongly undermined that claim. The Europeans, and Britain in particular, were horrified by the headlong US scramble to get out of Afghanistan and the chaotic manner in which US forces left, under siege at Kabul airport and with thousands of terrified Afghans clamouring to fly out with the US troops. Johnson urged Biden to extend the departure deadline by at least a week to allow Britain also to rescue Afghans who had helped the British army. But all the pleas from European leaders fell on deaf ears in Washington.

  The chaos in Afghanistan has weakened the allies’ faith in the US that it is a reliable military ally. Opinion polls in Germany, Italy and elsewhere have shown increasing public loss of faith in American leadership. This has also been echoed in other countries dependent on the US for defence and political protection, especially Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. To them, the Aukus deal is of little relevance; what they now seek is a guarantee that the US will not abandon the whole of the Middle East in the way that it abandoned Afghanistan.

  Britain is caught in the middle. It wants to remain a pivotal ally with the closest links, especially on defence and intelligence, with America. At the same time, it is forced to recognise that US priorities are now elsewhere, and that Britain can now play only a small role in US global strategy. But for Johnson, there are no alternative roles. It had cut itself off from Europe politically, and France is now pursuing a traditional French defence strategy that aims to be more independent of Washington. Germany may also follow the same line, especially if the Social Democrats head the new German coalition government.

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The Aukus agreement does at least give Britain a role in the new technologies intended to counter Chinese expansionism: cyber-security, artificial intelligence and quantum communications, which will play a role in protecting underwater cables from spying and eavesdropping by hostile powers. But all this is far from Britain’s shores. It is trying now to project its power globally, sending its most modern warship, the Queen Elizabeth, to the Pacific to be close to Chinese waters. But Johnson will struggle to show that this is of relevance to Britain’s immediate interests or is an alternative to close  cooperation with its former partners in Europe.

  There are huge problems at present in Britain, largely caused by Brexit and the end of cheap labour coming from eastern Europe. Petrol stations have run short of fuel and supermarket shelves are empty because there are no foreign drivers of heavy goods vehicles. For most Britain voters, these problems are the immediate issue. They do not see any help coming from America, and Johnson’s difficulties in securing a trade deal with America are nothing compared to the difficulty of getting the British economy to flourish outside the EU. The bigger security situation in Europe, including relations with Russia, is an issue on which there is now barely any British focus.

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