A new world is beginning to take shape, even if it remains disguised in the clothes of the old.
The United States, Britain, and Australia have announced what is in effect a new “Anglo” military alliance. The basics are these: In 2016, Australia struck a deal with France to buy a fleet of diesel-powered submarines, rejecting an Anglo-American alternative for nuclear-powered vessels. In March this year, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison (or, “that fellow down under,” as Joe Biden referred to him), began talking with Washington about reversing its decision. Then, last night, in a live three-way public announcement, Biden, Morrison, and British prime minister Boris Johnson announced that the Australians would scrap their agreement with France to team up with Britain and the U.S. instead, forming a new “AUKUS” military alliance in the process.
The French response has been apoplectic. The country’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called it a “knife in the back.” Benjamin Haddad, from the Atlantic Council in Washington, said it had set relations between the U.S. and France back to their lowest point since the Iraq war. Bruno Tertrais, of the France’s Foundation for Strategic Research think tank went even further, calling it a “Trafalgar strike.”
Yet, behind the soap opera of French anger and the quiet crowing of les perfides anglo-saxons, sits something much more important: the faint outlines of a new world order, or at least an attempt to start drawing one.
As Karl Marx observed, leaders who try to create something new “conjure up the spirits of the past to their service.” Old language, slogans, and costumes are deployed to present the new scene in time-honored disguise. As such, President Biden went out of his way to praise France and to claim that it remained a “key partner” in the Indo-Pacific. He also was at pains to point out that the submarines that would eventually patrol Australia’s coastline were not nuclear-armed, but nuclear-powered. The U.S., Biden stressed, was not breaking its non-proliferation commitments, simply strengthening existing alliances.
Indeed, in one reading, there is a sense of deep continuity about the formation of an AUKUS military alliance. As Biden pointed out, the three nations have fought together for most of the last 100 years and are core members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, alongside Canada and New Zealand. For France, in particular, the announcement only reinforces its belief in the difference between Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world. So much, so similar. (A senior Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last night that Britain and Australia were America’s “oldest allies.” That might be news to France, which was allied to the nascent U.S. as it fought for independence from … Britain.)
Yet, to view the emergence of AUKUS as a sign of continuity—as its architects have presented—is to miss the point. While Biden twice name-checked France in his remarks last night, the country on his mind was obviously the one not mentioned at all: China.
The senior administration official said the alliance was designed to strengthen capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region by anchoring Britain “more closely with our strategic pursuits in the region as a whole.” But, what is Biden’s strategic pursuit?
In his statement last night, while far from being particularly eloquent, Biden set out a vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” In other words, one free of Chinese domination. According to one U.K. official I spoke to, this concept first emerged in Japan and has since been adopted by Australia, another Pacific power which has felt pressure from Beijing. It also fits in with Britain’s own stated pursuit of a peaceful and open international order, as set out in its strategic review this year and which is the center-piece of Johnson’s foreign policy vision. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the move “seriously undermines regional peace and stability” while the country’s embassy in Washington accused Britain, Australia and the U.S. of having a “Cold War mentality.”
Biden was keen to stress the importance of the fact that AUKUS was an example of an alliance that projected American power, contrasting the development with Donald Trump’s rejection of such global compacts, which the former president saw as freeloading on the U.S. And it is certainly true that the new grouping marks a break from Trump’s America-alone approach. As one U.K. official put it to me: “Biden’s proposition is that China doesn’t do alliances, but ours have got a bit sleepy.” This is also a move to stabilize an order that Trump rejected. This, then, is a break from Trumpism—even if the French and Europeans believe the way they have been treated shows similar contempt.
For those in the U.S. concerned about the country’s imperial overreach, news that it has signed up to yet another alliance in defence of areas of the world far from its shores may seem like a nightmarish deja vu, just as it appeared the argument for strategic retrenchment was winning following America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden and Johnson see a world of multiple and complementary alliances. Biden, for example, spoke of “the quad” in his statement, the informal grouping of the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia that is another pillar of Washington’s Chinese containment policy. This marks a contrast to the 20th century world, one which centered around a continent-wide military alliance to contain America’s then-rival superpower and a globe-spanning trade body. Johnson sees the emergence of today’s world, more ad hoc and nimble, as perfect for post-Brexit Britain, which has—in his mind—unshackled itself from the permanence and inflexibility of the European Union for a more “dynamic” world where Britain can react quickly to events, signing up to new alliances like AUKUS based on its own national interests. (Critics would, of course, point out that EU membership and global alliances are not mutually exclusive—see France.)
But what last night’s announcement also reflects is the need to shore up a world order that has been left to wither after 20 years of complacency, hubris, and imperial overreach that Brexit and Trump’s election revealed as much as caused. The decision to invite Beijing into the world economic system in 2001 has not led to anything like the kind-of liberal or democratic China envisaged, only a more powerful and more draconian adversary that has grown and grown while the U.S. and its allies (including Britain and Australia) were distracted in the Middle East and Afghanistan. In effect, the U.S. is having to adapt to the new world of Chinese power in order to protect the old “free and open” world of global trade and American supremacy that Washington built after the Second World War.
The shocks of Trump and Brexit in 2016—the year Australia signed its original submarine deal with France—have led, inadvertently and circuitously, to today’s world where a political consensus now exists in the U.S., Britain, and Australia that Chinese power must be contained.
Taken together, the end of the war in Afghanistan, the pivot against China, and the prioritization of the old Anglo alliances over the EU, are all grand strategic moves. “When you make grand strategic moves,” the British official said, “you piss people off.”
The new military alliance to contain Beijing’s rise looks, then, at first glance, like a reassertion of the old order, but it is really one of the first murmurings of a new one taking its place.