Europe may feel slighted by AUKUS. It’s only because Donald Trump’s lack of seriousness gave so many Europeans an excuse to avoid thinking about their own declining relevance in a future centred on the Asia-Pacific.
The formation of AUKUS, a new trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK, and the United States, has many in Europe pondering not just the future of the Asia-Pacific but also the future of European-American relations. France, for one, is furious. Not only has its arms industry lost out on a lucrative and prestigious contract, but its diplomats have been made to feel small and unimportant – not even told they were about to be humiliated by Washington until the final moment. Officials from other European Union member-states are less immediately affected, and some even roll their eyes at France’s sanctimony over, of all things, an arms deal.
But that doesn’t mean they can ignore the implications of AUKUS. This isn’t just about France, but also about long-term trends in Washington’s global priorities and its attitude towards Europe. Ever since the Obama administration, analysts have debated whether what Hillary Clinton first dubbed America’s “pivot” to Asia meant a diminution in the value it placed on its relationship with European allies. Kurt Campbell, now the top official for the Asia-Pacific in Joe Biden’s White House, argued in a 2016 book that the US intended a “pivot to Asia with Europe, not a pivot to Asia from Europe.” Today, that reassurance looks even less credible than it did when it was first printed.
In retrospect, it appears that the Trump administration’s antics gave Europe a reprieve from facing up to the continent’s diminishing importance. Trump was both incapable of executing any long-term strategy and ridiculous in his rhetoric, even labeling the EU one of America’s greatest foes alongside Russia and China. Europeans waited for the theater of the absurd to be over, trusting that the return of adult supervision to the White House would mean a reinvigoration of the transatlantic partnership. Instead, the Biden administration has been a rude awakening. It is not only continuing Trump-era policies on tariffs, pandemic travel restrictions, and Afghanistan but adding new affronts such as AUKUS.
In reality, Trump was an aberration more for his rhetoric than for his policies. It makes much more sense to date the beginning of real drift in the transatlantic relationship not to Trump but to the dispute over the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and 2003. Donald Rumsfeld famously differentiated between the countries he dubbed “Old Europe” – those, including France, which opposed the war – and “New Europe,” the Eastern European countries which supported it and, in some cases, as with Poland, sent troops. In doing so he revealed a fundamental truth relevant to AUKUS. America’s foremost post-Cold War security challenges are to be found outside of Europe, and the perceived value of European allies to Washington will rise and fall depending on their contribution to these problems – yesterday Iraq, today China – not anything intrinsic to Europe.
European capitals realise this too, which is why everyone from France to the European Union to NATO has been busy announcing their own “Indo-Pacific” strategies, hoping to increase their relevance to the United States. But one simple factor places sharp limits on what Europe can or will accomplish in the region: geography.
Europe is really far away from the Asia-Pacific, and the continent’s small defense budgets don’t buy much in the way of power projection capabilities. France, with its overseas territories in the region and carrier strike group deployed there, is actually one of the European countries with the best claim to being a resident power – and still this didn’t stop it being treated roughly by the Biden administration in favor of Australia. It’s not difficult to see why. France’s scattered islands, with their tiny GDPs and millions of vulnerable citizens, are just as likely to be a liability as an asset in the event of a conflict with China. And while France might be forced to steam its carrier group elsewhere in the event of a security crisis in Europe, Australia will never be faced with any such choice. Geographical presence is a mark of commitment.
If all of this is structural and should always be priced-in to our understanding of America’s priorities in the 21st century, the lack of respect shown by the Biden administration for European sensibilities has still been surprising, especially given the administration’s rhetorical focus on democracy and multilateralism as lodestars of its foreign policy. As with the end of the war in Afghanistan, the fundamental policy may have been expected, but the implementation and the optics have been messy and caused seemingly unnecessary tension with Europe.
Some of this could be down to tactical policymaking failures caused by presidential inattention or an inexperienced National Security Advisor. More deeply, it seems to reflect a feeling that many European countries – France included – are too hopelessly accommodating in their policies towards China. Europe has a great deal of economic, cultural, and normative power in world politics – factors that Campbell pointed to as relevant for America’s “pivot” in his 2016 book, despite Europe’s relative inability to make a hard power contribution – and we might expect Washington to launch a charm offensive designed to enlist these in the struggle with China. The fact we instead see such callous indifference to European sensibilities suggests that Washington sees little hope of erecting a Euro-American front against Beijing.
None of this means that the transatlantic alliance is over, or that it couldn’t undergo a resurgence in importance for America in the event of a serious security crisis in Europe. But for now, America’s problems are elsewhere, and Europe’s ability to contribute is limited by geography and its own decision to maintain low defense spending and attempt to strike a middle way between the United States and China. Unless one of these factors changes, Europe may be in for some more rude awakenings.
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