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The Submarine Deal: What it Says About the US, What it Means for Europe

ARTICLES - 21 September 2021

The announcement of the AUKUS partnership is jolting France and transatlantic relations. After Bruno Tertrais’ strategic analysis of the deal, this article points to three important aspects of the American decision and what it says of the Biden administration foreign policy: the American strategy; how the US political system and diplomacy function and malfunction; lessons for Europeans, France and the transatlantic relation.

Strategic clarification: confirmation of a post-Atlantic grand strategy

The AUKUS announcement puts Biden in line with the Trump legacy on US foreign policy and on its focus on China. Trump’s National Defense Strategy (NDS 2018) closed the post-Cold War era, ended the anti-terrorism imperative, and posed the dawn of a new strategic competition between the United States and the "revisionist" powers, China and Russia. In the Pentagon’s NDS, the hierarchy was clear: China is the rival to the US leadership of the international order. On this last point, the Biden administration’s policy has not deviated from Trump’s.
 
The transatlantic relationship is not central to US foreign policy anymore: it is no longer the "cornerstone" of US engagement in the world. NATO has moved to the backseat, as has Russia, the second-ranking adversary after China. Biden certainly differs from Trump on his insistence on allies and partners. But, as announced early on by the Democratic team, the new strategic landscape has rather meant an update of alliances, allies, and their respective importance, a point made clear by the new AUKUS partnership and the way it was negotiated. This reflects that the US is serious about China, and about the importance of preserving an international order based on US-centric norms and rules. 

The transatlantic relationship is not central to US foreign policy anymore.

There certainly are continuities in foreign policy from Obama to Trump and from Trump to Biden, but focusing on these hides the most important aspect: over the past years, the United States has exited the post-Cold War era and has embraced a post-Atlantic strategy; Europeans are still working on the adjustment.

Methodological clarification: How the US functions and malfunctions

The AUKUS decision and the way it was developed and communicated show how the contemporary US political system functions, but it also reveals its dysfunctions. At least, this is the most generous way to understand the "absence of consultations" between Washington and Paris, something that has been generally true with (continental) Europeans since Biden’s inauguration. Nine months into the new administration, many posts remain vacant, meaning many foreign diplomats lack interlocutors, and strategic reviews are still underway, including on China - which has increased the feeling of continuity with Trump.

To date, the Senate has only confirmed 15% of the new administration’s 800 positions. The current delay is particularly due to Republican Senator Ted Cruz blocking any confirmation at the State Department, in retaliation to Biden’s stance on Nord Stream II (lifting of sanctions voted by Congress against Germany). More broadly, the Senate’s delay and political paralysis (or overload) also explain the lack of confirmed ambassadors in most European countries - which has not helped on the "consultations" front, whether with the submarine deals or on Afghanistan.

Nine months into the new administration, many posts remain vacant [...] and strategic reviews are still underway, including on China.

This has led to a dominant role for the NSC, the White House National Security Council, on the AUKUS deal as well as many other issues, a long-term trend exacerbated by Congressional and political dysfunction. The current organizational chart of the NSC is equally revealing of Biden's geopolitical priorities, with a bloated Indo-Pacific office, while the Europe adviser works more or less on her own; transatlanticists in general seem marginalized in the process. On the State Department side, the Assistant Secretary for European Affairs has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. These HR problems have political consequences that are bordering incompetence (remember Kabul this summer).
 
The philosophy behind AUKUS reflects the vision and analysis of Rush Doshi, China advisor to the NSC, laid out in his recent book, which argues that China intends to replace the United States as the center (hegemon) and influencer (principles and norms) of a revised international order. It is also the vision of Kurt Campbell, coordinator of the American Indo-Pacific strategy at the White House and former architect of Obama’s pivot, who has long argued for a general reorientation of US strategy (military, technological and commercial) towards Asia.

Lessons for Europe, Warnings for France

The downgrading of (continental) Europeans with the rapprochement of the Anglosphere also reflects the heightened importance of the Five Eyes, the intelligence alliance between the British, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, at a time when technological issues are at the center of power rivalry between China and the US (AI, Quantum and other new technologies are also at the heart of the AUKUS). Brexit here also affects America’s relationship with Europe.

The European reaction will tell whether the episode really convinces other Europeans of the need for strategic autonomy, or whether it confirms French isolation in Europe.

The lack of attention towards France can be seen as negligence, or incompetence. It can also look like a lesson, given its increasing demands for strategic autonomy, which Washington has suspiciously interpreted as an aspiration to neutrality between China and the United States. AUKUS also looks like an answer to Macron’s request for strategic clarification on the roles of NATO allies regarding China. Until now, the Biden European policy can be summed up mostly as Germany-first, which also expresses an American pragmatism in the face of German power and stability.

This American orientation also satisfies many Europeans who appreciate the German attachment to the American security guarantee and to NATO.
 
France remains, and will remain, a partner of choice for the United States in the fight against terrorism. This fight is not over for the US, even if it has been deprioritized. But in the Indo-Pacific, it is clear that France's military contribution has been ignored, or dismissed as irrelevant. The European reaction will tell whether the episode really convinces other Europeans of the need for strategic autonomy, or whether it confirms French isolation in Europe.
 
Finally, this episode points to the challenge of crafting "foreign policies for the middle classes" that are consistent among allies, when they rest above all on increasingly nationalist commercial and industrial policies. If this dimension is at the heart of American diplomacy, as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken confirmed in a recent speech, and if the transatlantic relationship is less central to US foreign policy, do Europeans and Americans not become, above all, economic competitors? The question arises for the EU, and for the US-EU relationship, even though it was highlighted during Biden's trip to Europe last June. 

Beyond that, it raises questions about the value of the struggle of the century according to Biden, this confrontation between democratic and authoritarian regimes, for which Washington intends to strengthen the links between democracies. Does AUKUS reveal a divided "West" or an isolated France? The Franco-American relationship has undoubtedly entered a turbulent zone. France is entering a presidential election year, a domestic context that the Biden administration has not taken into account. This is an ironic twist for a president who has made allies and diplomacy central to his foreign policy agenda, and who takes pride in his talent for personal diplomacy and his appreciation for his interlocutors’ political constraints.

 

Copyright: Brendan Smialowski / AFP

 

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