Exclusive Interview with Charles A. Kupchan: On Shifting the Broader Transatlantic Strategy from MENA to the Asia-Pacific

Written by | Wednesday, January 26th, 2022

EUBulletin has spoken with Professor Charles A. Kupchan about the latest twists and turns in the transatlantic relationship, the Biden administration’s ‘clumsy’ handling of the AUKUS deal and why it was an inadvertent, not a purposeful, insult to France and Europe, and also why Europe and the United States need to stand shoulder to shoulder to deal with the increasingly assertive China.
Charles A. Kupchan is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Professor of International Affairs in the School of Foreign Service and the Government Department at Georgetown University. From 2014 to 2017, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) in the Barack Obama administration. He was also Director for European affairs on the NSC during the first Bill Clinton administration. Before joining the Clinton NSC, he worked in the U.S. Department of State on the policy planning staff. His most recent books are ‘Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World’ (2020), ‘No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn’ (2012), and ‘How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace’ (2010).

EUBulletin: Looking at the transatlantic relationship, European and notably French leaders were taken by surprise in September last year by the launch of AUKUS — a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Can the fact that the Biden administration did not inform its European allies about the plan be interpreted as that the United States wanted to send a strong signal to Europe to ‘fall in line’ and cooperate with the U.S., particularly on China?

Kupchan: I would not read too much into the AUKUS deal about the Biden administration’s approach to Europe because I think the presentation of the deal was mishandled by Washington. I don’t have insight into why the Biden administration did not do a better job of informing its allies and try to include friends and other EU members into the initiative but I think they understand that it was not handled well.
I am guessing that what happened was that the people who manage the Asia policy were working intently on this deal, that information was not shared as well as it should have been across the government and that, as a consequence, the overall policy wasn’t well coordinated with allies. So my best guess is that it was an inadvertent insult to Europe and not a purposeful one. And it should be understood in those terms.

EUBulletin: Though France is an Indo-Pacific power in its own right, why has Washington supposedly not coordinated its strategy to the region with Paris?

Kupchan: You are right to say France would be on top of the list, not least among its European allies, because it has the presence in the Asia-Pacific. They have several territories there and I believe they have 7.000-8.000 French soldiers in the broader region, and so they are an Pacific power in many respects — it thus makes sense for Washington to work with the French.
But I do think that as Biden said as a candidate and as a president, we need to stand shoulder to shoulder to deal with China. I think that’s right and now the United States and Europe need to sit down together, also with the British, the Indians and with others, to try to forge a joint strategy. So, it’s a work in progress, and as I said, in some ways the AUKUS deal will be a learning moment of the importance to keep the European Union and its member states fully engaged as this strategy evolves.

EUBulletin: You mentioned that France should be the first European country as an U.S. partner with whom the U.S. should coordinate its Pacific policy. But French leader Emmanuel Macron said recently, in response to the controversy surrounding the launch of AUKUS, that he would like to see U.S. support for French interest in Africa, especially in the Sahel. So do you think there could be a kind of trade-off between the US and the EU and particularly France, whereby the EU would support the US interest within its Indo-Pacific strategy and in return the US would support the EU’s interests especially in North Africa and the Sahel?

Kupchan: I don’t think that I would call it a kind of deal, like a quid pro quo, in the sense that the strategic cooperation between the United States and France has actually been quite impressive and extends across the Middle East and Africa. The French were important partners in the counter-ISIL campaign, you may recall the famous red line, the French were ready to carry out air strikes against Syria after the use of chemical weapons, and in Africa, the United States and the French have already for years been cooperating closely, with the United States providing logistical support, intelligence support to French counter-terrorism operations. And so that teamwork between the US and France, I think, is already there. I think where we need more effort is teamwork in the Indo-Pacific and that’s going to take some time to develop because it’s new. You have individual European countries sending a few warships to the South China Sea but we have not really seen a broader Transatlantic strategy and part of it will be about submarines and warships but lot of it, I think, will be about trade, about the level-playing-field with China, it will be about supply chains in sensitive technologies, semiconductors, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, Artificial Intelligence.

EUBulletin: Moving production closer to home, right? There has been a debate in the EU that they should move and set up factories in North Africa and there is the expectation in North Africa that European pharmaceutical companies will move at least some of their production increasingly to Morocco, Tunisia and so on.

Kupchan: I am someone who thinks that Europe and China and the United States and China are highly integrated economically and so they are not going to decouple, they are not gonna be going back to a Cold War that looks like the US with Europe against the Soviet Union, completely separated in spheres, but I think there will be selective decoupling where the United States, Europeans either repatriate to home, supply lines will move, as you were saying, close by. And that to me makes sense in a world where we are headed into. But I do think that over the coming months and years the United States and its European partners do need to sit down and develop a broader approach toward the Asia-Pacific and that includes, in my mind, toward Russia. The Chinese partnership with Russia increases Chinese power and increases Russian power, I think it encourages Russian risk-taking and so as part of this Transatlantic conversation, a piece of this should be about how to weaken the link between Russia and China.

EUBulletin: The question is, if you look at the Stephen M. Walt’s important book ‘The Origins of Alliances’ and his argument that states don’t balance against ‘power’ but against power they perceive as threatening (defined not only by power, but also proximity and intentions), then in the long run, Russia has every reason to fear China more than the US but also the EU. What is you take on this?

Kupchan: I agree with you and I have recently published an article on that — it’s called ‘The Right Way to Split China and Russia: Washington Should Help Moscow Leave a Bad Marriage’.

Note: you can find the article here

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