Washington just fired a warning shot across Europe’s bow: Either support America’s new global strategic priorities, or get left behind. That’s the real message to be taken from the contentious United States-United Kingdom-Australia defense pact, the submarine switcheroo it created and the resulting fallout in Paris.
The French government has good reason to be miffed. The country lost a lucrative submarine contract with the Australians through the backroom shenanigans of a supposed ally. But if some French officials, and others in Europe, perceive the pact mainly as a business swindle, or another Trumpian “America First” betrayal, they are missing the point. Washington is in the midst of fundamental reassessment of its national security priorities, giving primacy toward competition — if not outright confrontation — with an authoritarian China. This new defense arrangement is an expression of that ongoing shift. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration believed beefing up Australia’s military capabilities to contend with an increasingly adversarial China was more critical to U.S. interests than French feelings, or even sound relations with Paris. And in inking that choice, even at the risk of damaging a long-time alliance, Biden is telling European allies to close ranks on China — or the U.S. will find other partners who will.
In Europe, Washington’s decisions are — not surprisingly — seen as an affront, especially coming from Biden, who repeatedly pledged to repair the damage done to traditional U.S. alliances by a combative Trump presidency. But at its heart, the defense pact and its consequences are a result of Europe’s policy of “strategic autonomy.” Obviously, the EU is a significant power in its own right, and Washington should not expect the bloc’s leadership to simply walk in America’s foreign-policy footsteps. Yet it’s all too clear that strategic autonomy has become a fancy term for fence-sitting. Europeans, understandably, want to have the best of both worlds: to maintain its security commitments with the U.S., and the subsidized defense they provide, while still pursuing the perceived riches of an expanding relationship with China. But what Europe is really doing is undercutting U.S. efforts to contain Chinese power and influence its policy. It’s allowing Beijing to divide the world’s advanced democracies and strengthen its own diplomatic and economic clout.
Strategic autonomy is tearing at the bonds of the Atlantic alliance, and the more the U.S. commits to a tough stance on China, the more strain these bonds will endure. And clearly, the only beneficiary of such dissension is Beijing. When combined, the U.S. and EU account for over 40% of global economic output. If the U.S. and Europe were to team up against China, the pressure might become unbearable for Beijing. It may seem perfectly logical, then, that columnist Thomas Friedman once proffered that “the Cold War with the Soviet Union was fought and won in Berlin. And the looming Cold War with China … will be fought and won in Berlin.” Though not entirely wrong, this is also old-fashioned thinking. During the Cold War, Western European democracies constituted the few countries with enough power and resources to bolster the U.S. against its communist rival. Much of the rest of the world was still desperately poor or transitioning from colonies to nations.
But the world has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Europe is no longer the only game in town. New centers of wealth and power that can form the backbone of alternative alliances with comparable muscle have emerged. Take, for instance, the Quad — a partnership that is becoming an anti-China coalition in the Asia-Pacific region. The economic output of its four members — the US, Japan, India and Australia — add up to a meaningful 35% of the world total. All four are also key trading partners for China, supplying everything from microchips to iron ore, and therefore possess significant economic leverage. Add in the like-minded participants of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group, such as the UK and Canada, and that share grows even larger. More than that, however, some of these countries have actually been willing to stand firm on China, and at great cost. Australia joined this new defense pact even though it has already endured economic coercion from China — imposed after Canberra called for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19 — and it has cost it billions in lost exports. Ottawa has scrupulously pursued a request from Washington to extradite the CFO of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, even though Beijing has taken two of its own citizens hostage in retaliation.
That’s more than Washington can expect from many of its friends in Europe. Ultimately, the submarine kerfuffle shows that European leaders will eventually have to confront a choice between uncomfortable sacrifices — foregoing some economic benefits in China, or watching themselves become second stringers in the U.S. alliance system. Their stand right now, insisting on keeping their starting jobs on the U.S. team without their hearts in the game, is increasingly untenable. Sooner or later, they will get benched.
‘Biden’s Submarine Message: Time for Europe to Fall in Line’ — Opinion by Michael Schuman — The Politico.