President Joe Biden announces that the US will share nuclear submarine technology with Australia (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Australia first

Are we supposed to be fighting for Australia or for US pre-eminence?

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

After the people had spoken, much of the opposition to Brexit was process-based. This opposition could take legal form — thus the Supreme Court deciding it knew when Parliament was prorogued or not. But mostly it was rhetorical and moral: the wrong thing was being done the wrong way. These influential voices, in politics and the press, have been curiously quiet about the UK’s commitment to a new, anti-Chinese, military relationship with Australia and the United States. 

This silence has been all the more surprising given that the AUKUS pact came mere weeks after the humiliating end of the trio’s adventures in Afghanistan. We should start by asking the most basic question of all: what is the threat from China that will be dealt with by submarines, carriers, and a pact of this kind?

After French embarrassment care of the English-speaking world, the Atlanticist intellectual, Nils Gilman, joked about the EU’s military incapacity:

As some wag remarked to me on the border of the Munich Security Conference last year: the central geopolitical role of Europe in the twenty-first century will be to serve as the hosts for important US-China meetings.

But on the face of it, what’s the problem here for EU member states? Why would Europe want to be a battalion in this confrontation? How tremendously liberating to instead host the opposed parties, rather than sign up to dumbly follow one of them. The question remains, what is one supposed to be agreeing to fight for?

The British electorate has no clue. No public discussion preceded the great theatrical coup of AUKUS being announced — not even the few hours warning given to the French government. If one worries about such things, no public understanding for the pact has been sought. It is a fait accompli by a foreign policy elite which has been met with scarcely a murmur of inquiry. Such boldness might be to your taste if you didn’t dimly remember some of their other recent strategic efforts, which have ended with people falling off planes trying to escape from the consequences.

What serious consideration have they given to what France has spent the last five years doing?

Hysterical voices were raised at Westminster, and in the press in America, that after 20 years of failure in Afghanistan, President Biden’s decision to stop going on failing portended doom for “the West”. With humiliation in Kabul, who could possibly trust such a lame giant? The answer, it turns out, is anyone that had need of her, instantly and without hesitation. So much so that any lesser alliance would be kicked over just like that.

If Rory Stewart, Tom Tugendhat, Bill Kristol and Tony Blair all doubled down on their failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, what has the transatlantic foreign policy “blob” to say about this new initiative in the Pacific?

For those like the former Foreign Office Permanent Secretary and National Security Adviser, Peter Ricketts, it is the mishandling of France that is foremost to be bemoaned. But what serious consideration have they given to what France has spent the last five years doing? 

After all, France had the choice of reacting with pleasure to Britain’s departure from the EU — “thank God! De Gaulle was right — they should never have been allowed in! And now that they’re out, let’s cooperate apart rather than disagree together. We can get on with building whatever Europe it is the Germans want without any further obstruction from these boorish American catspaws”. 

But instead, insult, threat, Galileo, fishing, Ulster, the City: France encouraged every blow they could have Brussels land and boasted about doing so. They did so, openly applauded by a cohort of British Remainer opinion.

Lord Ricketts holds that France, having unceremoniously lost in the Pacific, must be appeased and conciliated in Europe. “In areas,” he told The Observer, “where the UK will be looking for French flexibility, I suspect there will be a great big ‘non’ from France.”

Britain and Australia should recognise that America will have to fight anyway, regardless of what we do

Had Britain lost out in a comparable way to France, would such British Europhiles be arguing we had to be consoled by those who out-manoeuvred us? No. All their strictures would be of the “we told you so” variety: it would be time for Britain to learn its reduced place in the world and come to terms. The intellectual dishonesty would be enraging if anyone still took it seriously.

Chinese power is real. And Beijing’s statecraft, needlessly drawing in enemies, is as poor as the Kaiser’s was when Germany was likewise on the ascent.

 But what are we supposed to fight for in the Pacific? Is it for Australia whose freedom is rightly dear to us and who freely fought for us? Or is it for the sake of sustaining the legacy of American military pre-eminence in the western Pacific? 

If it’s the latter, then Britain and Australia should recognise that America will have to fight anyway, regardless of what we do. But, conversely, nothing we do prematurely will cause America to do what she was not, in her own interest, going to do anyway.

London and Canberra should be much more conscious of letting others go first. Let America fight America’s fights was a lesson each might have taken from Afghanistan, but neither has. For Australia’s sake, let us hope for a better outcome this time.

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