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Not So Great Britain

President Joe Biden delivering remarks

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

President Joe Biden delivering remarks about the submarine deal with Australia, as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on a video link behind, Washington, D.C., September 15, 2021

In a single stroke, the new security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States offended France, disrespected the European Union, raised nonproliferation concerns, and painted a target on Australia’s back for China. For Britain, though, it offered to reinforce its tenuous “special relationship” with the US, helping it to piggyback on America’s strategic rebalancing toward Asia.

Under the deal, announced on September 15, the US and the UK will provide technology and design guidance for nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian navy, to be partially built in Australia. The aim is to increase Australia’s ability to project power in the region and strengthen its conventional deterrent against China (the subs will not be nuclear-armed) in light of China’s rapidly expanding military capabilities and maritime aggressiveness. The pact also envisages tripartite cooperation on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and unspecified undersea assets, and provides for Australia’s acquisition of new long-range precision-strike missiles.

To make room for the new accord, Australia terminated an existing (if somewhat fraught) $66 billion contract for diesel submarines with France, agreed in 2016, and notified the French government only an hour before it made a public announcement about the new pact. France was outraged; the response of Boris Johnson—“Prenez un grip…and donnez-moi un break”—was typical of the British prime minister: trying to minimize the original offense yet managing to be ruder still.

It would be easy to shrug off the submarine project as a mere arms deal, and it’s a fair point that diesel vessels would not have served Australia’s military needs as well as nuclear-powered ones. But the submarines themselves won’t go into service for well over a decade, so, arguably, the procurement and operational aspects of the arrangement are secondary. The pact’s sting for France was not merely that of injured pride, financial loss, and shattered trust. It also signified the UK’s disregard for its European partners in favor of its link with the United States.

France responded by recalling its ambassadors from both Washington and Canberra. The move was a tad histrionic, though it was not hard to see why France made it. Paris cast its restraint in not pulling its ambassador from the UK itself as condescension, not deference, calling Britain’s part in the transaction merely “opportunistic” and thus hinting at a certain desperation on London’s part. The deal has unhelpfully cushioned Britain’s post-Brexit nationalist delusions and the Johnson government’s vision of a Britain reborn as a “buccaneering trading nation,” cutting its own deals in a global setting. For the UK’s former partners, it was one thing to leave the EU, but another to deliberately undermine one of its founding members.  

Feeding jingoistic British fantasies does not serve any of the parties involved—least of all the UK itself, which would do better to be coordinating with the EU on trade and security matters. Behind the facade of a country unshackled and empowered, Britain after Brexit is facing fuel and labor shortages, acute supply-chain woes, a weakening currency, slowing growth, and rising inflation—in short, the mounting problems of economic isolation. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has made all these things worse, they do owe a lot to Brexit itself. Against this harsh reality, the submarine deal appears to reflect a declining superpower, riven by internal discord and imperiled by democratic collapse, leading a diminished postimperial power down a cul-de-sac of geopolitical irrelevance.

Johnson’s government, however, seems oblivious. Back in the late 1990s, Tony Blair initially had a sensible assessment of the UK’s central transatlantic utility, having sought to position London as a bridge between Washington and Brussels during the early years of his premiership. More grandiosely, Johnson and his followers saw the EU as a bloated and inert bureaucracy that compromised the UK’s sovereignty and cramped its style as the éminence grise, after World War II, behind the American heir to Britain’s dominant strategic position. But as they bore down on the June 2016 referendum, their vision of post-Brexit British foreign policy was more nostalgic and petulant than realistic.

The government of Theresa May, the prime minister first tasked with managing Brexit’s growing pains, seemed paralyzed. Since Johnson assumed the leadership in July 2019, he has appeared more focused and determined, commissioning a team of experts to produce a hundred-page official document titled Global Britain in a Competitive Age. But its bullishness on Britain could be misguided.

The report adopts a solemn and magisterial tone, setting forth a rising China, a nefarious Russia, and security threats to Europe as the chief challenges facing Britain. Its four objectives are ostensibly rational and laudable: to increase the UK’s advantages in science and technology, defend its homeland against all threats, make climate change mitigation a priority, and shape the international liberal order by promoting democracy and digital freedom. Global Britain also advocates expanding the UK’s nuclear force from 225 to 260 warheads (reversing thirty years of reductions), recommends a policy of strategic ambiguity about its nuclear capability to keep its adversaries off-balance, and counsels London to signal that it has abandoned a no-first-use assurance should it be attacked or threatened by other weapons of mass destruction. The document also proposes the largest increase in Britain’s defense budget since the end of the cold war, burnishing its status as Europe’s leading military power.

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One implicit aim of the hawkish stance on nuclear matters would be to set Britain apart from the rest of Europe and align itself even more closely with the United States, which explicitly remains “the UK’s most important strategic ally.” Under Trump, the US went ahead with upgrading its nuclear force and adopted a more aggressive posture, significantly downgrading arms control. The document also recommends that Britain “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific—an unmistakable echo of the United States’ move in that direction, beginning under the Obama administration.

Global Britain does acknowledge that the UK’s main security concerns will remain in the Euro-Atlantic region (with residual attention to East Africa, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean), and that it may not contribute all that significantly to US diplomatic and military efforts in the Indo-Pacific. Whether, given its imperial legacy, the UK would be welcome in American efforts to make India a major regional partner is debatable, for instance. The submarine deal with Australia seems intended, at least in part, to offset such limitations.

The fundamental difficulty with Britain’s basing its bid for strategic influence on the special relationship remains the same as it has been since the 1950s: from the US standpoint, the connection is essentially a fair-weather arrangement and is anything but symmetrical. Washington set the tone decades ago when it undermined Britain’s attempt, along with France and Israel, to seize control of the Suez Canal from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in 1956 in order to secure oil supplies and meet longstanding military needs and obligations. Having taken over Britain’s place as steward of the world order, the US chose to enlist Arab nationalism to contain the Soviet Union rather than support the UK’s more parochial national interests.

Although the UK, like France, notably declined to support the US on the Vietnam War in the 1960s, London elected not to strain the special relationship further when Washington decided to intervene in Iraq in 2003. While the Trump administration’s denigration of NATO and withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 likely served as catalysts for a French-led push for European “strategic autonomy,” the impulse may have originated with the Iraq War. In contrast to France’s opposition to military intervention, Blair’s unblinking support for George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq made him look, in time, like “America’s poodle,” as the United States’ other European allies only became more doubtful about the war’s merits. As a result, Blair’s legacy as prime minister was tarnished, New Labour’s ascendancy truncated, and Brexit hastened.

For all that, the Anglo–American relationship should remain at least a little special to the Biden administration, because it is still useful. The UK is more open than other NATO countries to the United States’ post-Trump reinstatement as the dedicated leader of NATO, and it has proven itself willing to incur the risks as well as share the financial burdens of military operations with the US, emphatically demonstrated in the Iraq intervention. It would serve transatlantic relations well for the Biden team to use diplomacy to reconcile post-Brexit Britain with the EU—something it rather starkly neglected to do in the maladroit handling of the submarine deal, which apparently involved little deliberation among the various agencies with a stake in it. Instead, Biden’s need to placate China hawks in the US foreign policy establishment, partly for reasons of preserving a semblance of bipartisanship, took precedence.  

The parties principally concerned here—the US, Britain, and France—are in broad diplomatic alignment on the region. Each seeks competitive economic engagement through various programs, including the Group of Seven’s Build Back Better World initiative and the EU’s Global Gateway, and all agree on the need to stand up to China militarily without unduly provoking it. Europe as a whole is a more important US partner in these endeavors than the UK by itself. But the submarine deal creates the impression that the US is underwriting a notional Anglosphere in order to contain China; this predictably got China’s back up. Beijing’s public response to the accord has been reflexively shrill, threatening, and disingenuous—with no acknowledgement that China’s behavior might be expected to prompt greater cohesion among its adversaries.

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Japan and India are likely to stick with the preexisting Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, which also includes the United States and Australia, as their primary instrument for resisting Chinese assertiveness. Alongside the Quad, however, a tighter and more substantive alliance between the United States and Australia, which, understandably, is increasingly nervous about China, makes strategic sense. It is less clear why the United Kingdom should be so intimately involved, given the tension between London and EU capitals that the US–Australian deal has exacerbated and considering the UK’s relatively minor prospective part in the arrangement. Britain’s real agenda is seemingly to bolster the special relationship, skewed though it is, even if that means further fraying its ties in Europe in the wake of Brexit.

Before the UK left the EU, episodes in which London sidled up to Washington and frustrated Paris would have seemed almost normal. Britain and France would have been playing their assigned postwar roles: Britain as the United States’ most reliable European ally, France as its most dyspeptic one. Indeed, there are clear parallels between the submarine deal ruckus and the United States’ provision of Polaris missiles to the UK in 1962 without consulting France, which prompted a French veto of Britain’s first application for membership in the European Economic Community. No doubt, the Polaris controversy also contributed to France’s withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military command in 1966.

Back then, the overarching need for Western solidarity to contain the Soviet Union enabled the transatlantic alliance to withstand these strains. But today, the scene is very different, and the prospects of such comity are grim. Despite protestations to the contrary, Johnson may have concluded that the UK has burned its bridges to the continent and that any effort to rebuild them would be futile. That leaves an attenuated special relationship—with the US now in decline and distracted by domestic troubles—as Britain’s only strategic lifeline. If so, as Sir Lawrence Freedman, perhaps the world’s foremost strategic studies scholar, suggested a couple of years ago, Brexit ultimately may have destined Britain “to retire from greatness and lead a quieter life.”

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