Director of International Relations Programmes at the UFV
ustralia’s breaking of the agreement signed with France to build a fleet of diesel and electric submarines in favour of the Anglo-American offer to build a smaller, nuclear-powered fleet has provoked a sharp and bitter response from the French authorities, with the consequent international repercussions.
The first consideration concerns the nature of the crisis. Is this a problem limited to the industrial interests of the states involved or, on the contrary, is it yet another milestone in the process of the breakdown of the transatlantic link in the context of the crisis of the liberal order?
The transatlantic link, the pillar of our security that has enabled the progress and welfare we have enjoyed, has been deteriorating for years. Let us recall some milestones in this process:
– The debate over burden sharing during the final decades of the Cold War.
– The denunciation of the gap of capabilities within the Alliance due to the lack of investment by some member states, which made joint action difficult, if not impossible. Debate characteristic of the Balkan wars.
– The statement by the then US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, that in the future alliances would be occasional (Alliances of the Willing), leaving aside institutionalised alliances such as NATO itself.
– The turn to the Pacific announced by Barack Obama, preceded by a similar speech by George W. Bush on the campaign trail. It was a clear warning that the European and Middle East theatres were taking a back seat.
– President Macron’s statement that NATO was “brain dead”.
– The withdrawal from Afghanistan, without coordination with allies. The United States limited itself to communicating the dates on which the operation would be carried out.
In addition to these milestones of a defensive nature, there are others in the commercial sphere, such as the abandonment of the Free Trade Agreement – a rejection assumed by the then presidential candidates Clinton and Trump and which would give way to greater integration between the economies on both sides of the Atlantic – or the tariff policy followed by Trump.
The conclusion is simple: what was united by the Soviet threat and the risk of a revival of radical ideologies, a consequence of the destruction wrought by World War II, has been disunited by the absence of a direct threat after the demise of the Soviet Union and the unwillingness of Europeans to spend more money on defence.
In addition to this logical and predictable process of deterioration, since the instrument designed to contain the Soviet Union is not necessarily useful in a different strategic environment, there is also the crucial fact that the member states of the Atlantic Alliance do not share a strategic vision of how to deal with the Chinese threat. This goes far beyond a debate over budgets or capabilities. We are referring to a problem that affects the raison d’être of the Alliance itself.
If there is no agreement on how to deal with a common threat, is there any point in maintaining the Alliance? Is not common strategy the foundation of an alliance? All member states agree that NATO is too valuable to be willingly dispensed with. With its limitations, it is better to have it than not to have it. It is only a common “toolbox”, but it is worth keeping. After all, article 5 of the Washington Treaty does not bind us to anything, so there is no more military risk in it than out of it.
As the Alliance is blurred to the benefit of the Organisation, the relationship between its members evolves, losing intimacy and mutual trust. Legitimate defence of national interests no longer has to be negotiated with an ally. NATO has, through a slow and tense process, lost its strategic dimension. Indeed, Biden’s diktat to approve a new strategy at the upcoming Atlantic summit in Madrid highlights precisely this reality. It would seem that Biden wanted to stage the impossibility of achieving this rather than forcing a significant step forward in its reconstruction.
The key issues on the Atlantic agenda – Russia, China and Iran – only highlight differences. For Washington, Russia is fundamentally a European problem, even if the states of the Old Continent are unable to agree on how to act. The US strategy of confrontation with China clashes with the European position of cooperation and dialogue. As for the general crisis in the MENA region, Washington is trying to strike a balance and distance itself, convinced that it is not a strategic threat given its energy independence.
Following the principle established by Rumsfeld, the US does not seek to contain China through permanent institutions but through a network of bilateral agreements and directorates. The Five Eyes agreement, the diplomatic space known as Quad (Quadrilateral Diplomatic Dialogue) or the more recent AUKUS are its foundation. The basic idea is to bring together the Anglo-Saxon powers and the states that feel most threatened in the degree of cooperation they are most comfortable with. NATO as such has no place.
France, like the UK, knows that if it wants to be a global actor it has to be present in the Pacific. Its problem is that it is too small and the theatre of operations is too far away. It has sought agreements and the one with Australia was very important to this end. French diplomacy was aware of the changing security environment, as well as the severity of the pressures – diplomatic gestures, cyber attacks and trade sanctions – Australia was under. France therefore proposed to Australia to modify the contract to build fewer nuclear-powered submarines. This proposal met with no response. In fact, by then the agreement with the United States was already closed or in the process of being closed.
Both the what and the how of what happened only make sense in the context of the crisis of the liberal order and, in particular, of the transatlantic link. In my opinion, the key points to bear in mind are as follows:
1. The United States designs and executes its policy of containment of China on the basis of a solid parliamentary agreement and with Europe’s back turned. Not only are allies not informed, they are kept in the dark.
2. Sophisticated military capability agreements are never just industrial agreements. They are bought from reliable allies, as a reinforcement of the link and as a guarantee of maintenance. We Spaniards have the recent experience of the failed sale of nine frigates to Australia, which will eventually be manufactured by the British BAE.
3. The fact that the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia concealed the final agreement from France and NATO until the last moment can only be explained by a desire to offend, to send a clear message to NATO members that they are no longer perceived as allies when it comes to tackling the major security challenges of the time. The crisis could have been avoided by explaining in good time the reason for the change of plans. France would have been hurt, but not publicly humiliated. It is one thing to lose a major industrial contract, with an obvious diplomatic and military dimension, and quite another to be publicly humiliated: they have been cheated, left without a contract and told they have little to do in the region.
What has happened may have two effects that are perhaps not among Washington’s objectives. It may be in China’s interest to advance plans for the seizure of Taiwan, however it chooses to do so, before the Quad bloc has greater capabilities. On the other hand, a fragile Europe in need of markets may more easily fall into China’s orbit.
US management of this crisis seems to take it for granted that the Chinese threat is confined to the Indian-Pacific area and is essentially military in nature. Hence the luxury of offending the French and Europeans. In reality, the Chinese threat is global and, as a result of a comprehensive strategy, is not confined to the military realm. If the United States wants to contain China, it also needs a comprehensive strategy, as well as the cooperation of many other states, especially those that have believed in the liberal order. The United States needs Europe to contain China. We will not always agree on strategy, but we can develop joint policies.
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