A question of trust

Joe Biden

The last US elections had the whole world on edge for a week that seemed to drag on for a long time. When the victory of Democratic candidate Joe Biden was finally announced, Europe breathed a sigh of relief. After four years marked by Brussels' distrust of Washington, it was finally time to rebuild a relationship that Trump had so damaged. The US president's first speeches gave cause for hope. They spoke of a commitment to multilateralism and international cooperation, of reversing the trends of his predecessor. Europe could finally trust its transatlantic ally again. Until AUKUS was announced.

The military alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, dubbed AUKUS, aims to increase trilateral security and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific area. Under the agreement, Australia's military capabilities will be strengthened to cope with China's growing power. The first step, as announced by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, will be to provide Australia with eight nuclear-powered submarines.

The news came as a bitter pill to swallow in France. The AUKUS put an end to the multi-billion dollar deal, agreed in 2016, under which France was to build a series of submarines for Australia. Macron, who only learned of the news a few hours before it was made public, was quick to announce the withdrawal of French ambassadors to the United States and Australia, a gesture that many described as overkill. The diplomatic crisis, however, was not caused by the economic loss of the cancelled agreement. It was a matter of confidence.

In the days that followed, the French government kept repeating over and over again that this is no way to treat an ally, and rightly so. In the specific area of security and defence, France and the United States have a close cooperative relationship within NATO. However, this is no longer so solid, especially since Macron said that the transatlantic organisation is suffering from a "cerebral coma". The French president is also, along with German Chancellor Merkel, the most vocal advocate of a European armed forces aimed at achieving EU independence from the US.

Contrary to expectations, the Biden administration has once again opted to prioritise self-interest and self-benefit over the construction of a solid multilateral system. It is not surprising, then, that high-ranking officials such as EU High Representative Josep Borrell and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are also pushing for the EU's strategic autonomy, which in defence matters involves the creation of its own army. This much-debated project in Europe was not intended to undermine NATO, quite the contrary. On the contrary, it was intended to achieve a relationship of equality between Europe and the United States, a process that AUKUS has jeopardised. The confidence that Biden managed to inspire in his European partners in his first months in office seems to have evaporated.

The cooling of relations with France is not the only consequence of AUKUS. Moving away from a Westernist perspective, the news of the military alliance is an affront to the Asian giant. Biden, who 48 hours before announcing the deal had held a telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, also chose not to mention his plans, thus contributing to the cooling of relations. The US's intention to strengthen its presence in the Indo-Pacific to limit Chinese expansionism is leading to an escalation of tensions with Beijing. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the trilateral agreement "threatens to seriously damage regional peace... and intensify the arms race".

This is one of the big problems. The AUKUS will not alter the balance of power between world powers. Australian submarines will take at least a decade to become operational, while China already plans to have a similar fleet by 2030. The international status quo, therefore, is unlikely to change, although its stability is at stake with increasing polarisation. The rhetoric being adopted by the US and China, Biden's rudeness towards France and thus the EU, the arms race and rising tensions have an obvious, and extremely dangerous, consequence: the loss of confidence in multilateralism.