AUKUS and Those Who Missed Out
British people woke on the morning of September 17, 2021, to the surprise discovery that they had joined a tripartite defence partnership they had never heard of. The Australia–United Kingdom–United States (AUKUS) agreement was one of the best-kept secrets in the leaky ship of Whitehall, with only ten people in the whole of the British government being aware of the deal in which the experienced nuclear submarine operators the US and the UK would pool their resources to help Australia develop a nuclear undersea fleet of its own.
Unveiling the agreement with the flourish of a live press conference in which the three heads of government in widely disparate time zones—it was already tomorrow in Australia—stood as ostensible co-equals was an irresistible act, even though the affable Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, had already taken the UK government to task several times for breaching the conventions of parliamentary politesse by announcing the affairs of state to the press instead of facing the scrutiny of the House first.
MPs had to wait until the following morning to hear Boris Johnson officially inform them that Australia had taken the “momentous decision” to acquire a fleet of nuclear submarines and that, at Canberra’s request, Her Britannic Majesty’s Government “shall place the UK’s expertise in this field, amassed over decades, at the assistance of our Australian friends”. After all, the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines “keep silent watch over vast expanses of ocean, protecting shipping, gathering intelligence, deterring adversaries, and guarding the trade routes on which our livelihoods depend”.
But AUKUS isn’t just three middle-aged mates fiddling with a car engine in someone’s home garage on a Saturday afternoon. The enterprise of designing, building, operating and eventually safely decommissioning nuclear submarines is no small task, but the agreement is also accompanied by further co-operation on, as Scott Morrison pointed out, “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities”.
The advantages for Australia are clear but the inspiration behind’s Britain’s co-operation was expressed half a year before AUKUS by London’s post-Brexit Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Rather than the dog’s breakfast expected by many, this document was surprisingly clear in its thinking, and among other things highlighted the increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific region as the UK adapts to major changes in the world around it.
AUKUS easily fulfils the Integrated Review’s goals of solidifying existing friendships, strengthening co-operation and building interoperability. The UK also plans to permanently base two Royal Navy vessels in Asian waters and the “Indo-Pac” serving as the destination of the UK’s new flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on her 50,000-nautical-mile round trip. (During the seven-month voyage her crew consumed 25.5 tonnes of sausages, 1.2 million rashers of bacon, and the weight of fifteen London buses’ worth of potatoes.)
Combined with the UK’s application to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Brexit-backing Prime Minister offers AUKUS as an example of the kind of Global Britain envisioned by many who advocated the UK’s departure from the parochial bonds of the European Union. And after decades of HM Treasury avariciously eyeing the Ministry of Defence for cuts and austerity, Boris’s Britain is spending a further £16.5 billion above the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto spending commitment to reinvigorate and modernise the armed forces, and doubling the investment in shipbuilding over the course of the current parliament.
As significant as who is in AUKUS is who isn’t. In contrast to the “Five Eyes” intelligence co-operation agreement, AUKUS doesn’t include New Zealand or Canada, two traditional allies of long standing. Could this be an acknowledgment that under their current political leadership both New Zealand and Canada are increasingly unreliable?
Jacinda Ardern has been almost shameless in her kowtowing to the People’s Republic of China, befriending the nakedly racist and genocidal imperialism of Beijing while putting the friendly family of nations into which New Zealand was born on the back burner. In Ottawa, meanwhile, Trudeau fils appears inherently unserious. The same charge is often levelled at Boris, but at least Boris has Brexit to show for himself and, despite appalling domestic cockups more recently, a healthy parliamentary majority. Justin Trudeau’s electoral performance has been unimpressive. His meteoric rise was only by default, given a 20 per cent swing from the Canadian Liberals’ historic low. Since Trudeau came to power, the Liberal vote has declined in both numbers and vote share in two unremarkable general elections. The continuance of his primacy on Parliament Hill has been aided by an opposition Conservative Party that seems unclear in its vision, intent and strategy and too given to infighting. Small wonder that one of the most skilled politicians on the Canadian Right today, Jason Kenney, has preferred to lead on the provincial level as Premier in Alberta rather than risk it on the federal stage in Ottawa.
In London, Canada is still viewed as an important trade and strategic partner, not to mention an old friend. With an active and experienced military, Canada is also the site of a major UK training base. The British Army’s use of the wide-open Canadian prairies allows live-fire training exercises up to battle group level—something simply impossible in the crowded United Kingdom.
New Zealand’s military contribution today is bordering on insignificant, but one can hardly discount their skill and potential usefulness in times of trouble. Rommel delivered the highest praise when he said that if he had to take Hell he’d use Australians to seize it and New Zealanders to hold it. The RNZN still has a huge chunk of the Pacific to patrol, and service-minded New Zealanders who fail to find opportunities in their own country’s armed forces often end up rendering valuable service in Britain’s.
Back in Blighty, perhaps the most sociologically interesting reaction has been amongst the FBPE crowd. For those whose existence is so blissful as to remain unaware of this cohort, “#FBPE” stands for “follow back pro-EU”—the Twitter hashtag persistent Remainers adopt to display to all their ardent opposition to Brexit. This crowd is also sometimes known as “flag Twitter”: whereas flag-waving was once a right-wing shibboleth, these Twitter users proclaim their allegiance with EU flag emojis included in their Twitter names (or “handles”). It is yet another symptom of the fact that absolutely everything everywhere at all times must be politicised and one’s place in the moral hierarchy of the Left must be asserted and proclaimed unceasingly.
The smart bourgeois metropolitan liberals of the FBPE crowd view Boris’s globe-stretching defence pact as reflecting the very worst kind of nostalgic imperial hangover. Why, they insist, can’t the United Kingdom just become a normal country—like, say, the Nordic countries? Or the Netherlands? AUKUS, in some sense, answers this question: the United Kingdom continues to enjoy strong linguistic, cultural, economic and social ties with countries overseas who are 1) large, 2) successful, and 3) free.
A tendency exists amongst Remainers to slander their Brexiteer opposite numbers as provincial nativist little-Englanders when it is the EU-flag-waving crowd that wants to cling closely to a protectionist Europe throwing barriers to outsiders that is—dare one point out—overwhelmingly white in racial origin.
Meanwhile, just as the British Army trains in the “Great White North” of Canada, the UK also has a defence agreement with Kenya permitting 10,000 UK service personnel to be deployed for training in East Africa for weeks-long sessions. This allows UK armed forces to offer important training to and joint exercises alongside Kenyan defence forces, as well as providing a geographically and logistically important site for carrying on the fight against al-Shabaab and other extremists based in the Horn of Africa.
Boris’s vision is for an outward-facing Britain that formalises existing bilateral (or, when justified, multilateral) links across the world, reassuring friends near and far that the United Kingdom is a friend whose support or assistance will continue even in adversity. The contrast to Remainers’ European dream-state—the Federal Republic of Germany—could not be clearer. Berlin’s hands are tied behind its back by its dependence on Russian energy, and too many amongst Germany’s political elite have been compromised through their co-option by personal financial links to Russia. Former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has made himself the poster-boy for enriching himself from Russia’s cosy corporate ecosystem.
But, with all due respect to the mostly earnest FBPE crowd, most people in the UK are not on Twitter, and most of those who do have Twitter accounts do not use them, and most of those who do use them do not tweet, making active tweeters a minority within a minority within a minority. It is journalists’ widespread use of and presence on Twitter that overrates the importance of this very small segment of the population.
As with the Brexit referendum, with AUKUS there are—alas—losers as well as winners, and viewed from London it is impossible to ignore the reaction in Paris. AUKUS required Canberra to cancel the “deal of the century” to supply the Royal Australian Navy with diesel submarines designed and built by France’s Naval Group. Massive investment has been made in fulfilling this contract, and the cancellation notice only went out on the very day that AUKUS was announced—after very recent reassurances from the Australians that the deal would go through.
Since the Lancaster House treaties of 2010, Anglo-French defence and security co-operation has grown extremely close. France and the United Kingdom are effectively the only two military powers in Europe committed to maintain the capability of launching large-scale operations. Germany, once a significant player during the Cold War—on both sides—has neglected its military for a generation with the consequent reduction in capabilities and some embarrassing revelations in their domestic press. The Italians, a typically mercantile and inventive people, have a strong record of innovation and technology in defence (and are good at exporting it) but are distracted by domestic problems and the relentless onslaught of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Other European countries like Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands have made important but small contributions to UN, NATO or other operations—including in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Only Great Britain and France, however, have the capability of power projection anywhere in the world, with well-trained soldiers, high-tech air forces and blue-water navies. Their continued willingness to work bilaterally—outside of any other context—makes the egg on France’s face a worry for Britain. One gets the impression that Whitehall is convinced the AUKUS agreement is justified but is at least a little bit ashamed it has proved such a blow to as close an ally as France.
The immediate reaction in Paris was understandably fierce. Foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described AUKUS as a “stab in the back”. A sympathetic French officer I spoke to described it as a “Trafalgar moment” of both diplomatic and industrial humiliation. It’s worth pointing out that France is a power in the Indo-Pacific region whose presence there gives it an Economic Exclusion Zone of over 4.2 million square miles (11 million square kilometres)—second worldwide only to the United States. France’s overseas territories in the Indian and Pacific oceans have a combined population of more than 1.7 million people.
France therefore views her interest in the region as more legitimate than the United Kingdom’s. Since the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, not a single British overseas territory is in the Pacific, and the British Indian Ocean Territory—primarily an American military base—is the only one in the broader Indo-Pacific area. The French reaction is not just that of a baby throwing its toys out of the pram but of a country with a deep sense of its state, its culture and its importance as a world player that has been inflicted a humiliation by its friends. Perfidious Albion is as ancient a concept in Anglo-French relations as one can imagine—but is there any significance in the fact that the immediate reaction in Paris was to recall the French ambassadors in Canberra and Washington but not London?
Given the unacknowledged guilty feeling in Britain, France probably still has a strategic window in which it could press its advantage. But whether there is much room for Paris to obtain concessions in other theatres of Anglo-French relations is perhaps doubtful. While a transitional post-Brexit licensing regime is in place, any further generosity in terms of access to British waters for French fishermen would be difficult to justify domestically. This is precisely the moment for statesmen or diplomats of genuine understanding and respect for the unique nature of the Entente Cordiale to smooth over the difficulties our two great countries are currently suffering in their friendship. But Boris is distracted by a domestic furore over “Partygate” that refuses to die, while Macron’s attention is understandably consumed by his battle for re-election later this year.
Ultimately, if the wound that has been opened between France on the one side and Australia, the UK and the US on the other is allowed to fester, the only power that will benefit is China.
Andrew Cusack, born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland and South Africa, now lives in London