Quarterly Concerns

September 30, 2021

Afghanistan, AUKUS, and Albion

Forget about the UK’s soul searching about Afghanistan—to the EU’s surprise, AUKUS seems to show that Global Britain can deliver. This raises tricky questions for European defense.

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A splendid Global Britain after Brexit—this is what London promised, but what the continental Europeans didn’t believe in. Nevertheless, with its 2021 Integrated Review, the United Kingdom published its roadmap to becoming an independent global leader after Brexit, which, by the way, excluded any form of foreign, security, or defense cooperation with the European Union. Then, the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 launched a painful soul-searching process about Britain’s role and the reliability of the United States, its traditional core partner (and a pillar of Global Britain).

But rather than using the Afghanistan trauma to reengage with the other Europeans (as the latter had hoped), the British government continued reinvesting in the transatlantic ties, with a first big success in September 2021the secretly negotiated AUKUS defense deal between Australia, the UK, and the US. Here, London believes it has both landed a diplomatic coup that embodies its role as a global leader and confirmed its position as Washington’s primary European ally. That, however, doesn’t make things any easier for Europe’s security and defense policy.

British Soul-searching after Afghanistan

The disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan had a tremendous resonance in the UK. Over 20 years, more than 150,000 British soldiers had served in Afghanistan, with over 400 hundred casualties. Next to Iraq, Afghanistan had been the primary example of the British efforts to prove their military relevance to the US. Many UK politicians fought in Afghanistan, including the chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, which gave the political debate additional candor and gravity. Most importantly, Afghanistan recalled the pivotal 1956 Suez crisis, when the UK learned the hard way that foreign policy against the US was doomed to fail.

In the ensuing public and, in particular, parliamentary debate, three aspects stood out: First, a certain powerlessness, in that that the UK was not able to support or at least save the people that had helped it in Afghanistan. Although it evacuated more than any other European country (around 15,000), many were left behind.

Second, despite putting so much military effort into supporting the US in Afghanistan, the UK did not have any meaningful influence on the strategy: from the invasion in 2001 over President Barack Obama’s “surge” to President Donald Trump’s treaty with the Taliban up to the timetable of the 2021 withdrawal.

Third, doubts about the reliability of the US emerged. Given the strategic reorientation of the US away from not only the “forever wars” in Middle East but also to some extent Europe in favor of confronting China, members of parliament voiced concerns about the UK being “entirely dependent upon a unilateral decision of the United States.” Almost echoing arguments for European strategic autonomy, several Conservative backbenchers called for more defense cooperation with European allies (though not the EU itself). However, neither Prime Minister Boris Johnson nor his government joined the chorus.

Doubling Down on the Transatlantic Alliance

Quite the opposite, the government was already working on the new AUKUS defense partnership. Far more than a deal about delivering nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, AUKUS encapsulates London’s comprehensive post-Brexit approach: a focus on the Anglosphere, with a stronger engagement in the Indo-Pacific to stay relevant to the US, technological ambition, and a more flexible approach to alliances. That AUKUS overshadowed the announcement of the EU’s own Indo-Pacific Strategy—with which the UK does not formally engage—and deeply annoyed France was likely an added bonus. Even those MPs like Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood, who had fiercely criticized the US over Afghanistan, praised AUKUS as a major step toward a reinvigorated alliance with the US, support for a long-standing ally and a model for “Global Britain” taking the lead.

Thus, the fall of Kabul may have been an opportunity for Conservative backbenchers and the opposition to criticize the UK’s dependency on unilateral US decisions, but it did not affect the course of the government. Both for hard military reasons and political prioritization, the US remains the core guarantee of UK national security.

Ironically, while the often-chaotic foreign policy of Donald Trump pushed even Brexit Britain to align closer with its European allies, the UK government is willing to double down on the transatlantic relationship with President Joe Biden. Given the geostrategic priorities of the US, this means one thing above all—unequivocally supporting the US against China. Consequently, the Johnson government has banned Huawei and joined the criticism of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Invest (CAI), currently stuck in the European Parliament.

AUKUS clearly is a success for London, even if its content remains vague and the collateral damage is potentially high. Far from being isolated after Brexit, Britain found a way to make the most of its limited political and military resources by adapting them to the new circumstances.

Miles Away from Europe

The hopeful Europeans who thought the Afghanistan disaster would bring Britain back to Europe were quickly proven wrong. For the Johnson government, Brexit is done, and Europe doesn’t matter. There is an impressive gap between the importance the continental Europeans put into thoughts about Britain coming back, and the current government in London banishing Europe from its mental map. Both the controversial discussions about the lessons learned from Afghanistan and the AUKUS announcement underline that post-Brexit Britain will consciously play away and remain a difficult partner for its European allies.

This leaves the Europeans in an intriguing position: while they are still convinced that a formalized cooperation agreement with the UK would be the way forward to join forces on security and defense, for the time being the UK is not even interested. The harsh criticism of the dependency on the US in some Conservative circles did not translate into any interest in cooperation with the EU. This is only likely to change if either the EU turned into an attractive security and defense actor that offers added value for London, which remains elusive—or we see a change of government in London, which doesn’t seem to be imminent.

The Strategic Choices Ahead

There are some questions marks over whether this bet on tilting toward the Indo-Pacific will pay off for Britain. Militarily, even with increased efforts, the UK lacks the resources to make a real difference in the Indo-Pacific. At the same time, diverting resources away from European defense will increase the pressures on the UK defense budget and has the potential to weaken NATO.

Some Conservative backbenchers like former Prime Minister Theresa May continue to question whether binding the UK so firmly again to the US is a wise choice, given that it will have little to no say in US strategic decisions in the Indo-Pacific, US internal politics remain highly volatile, and even President Biden now has a record of shafting European allies for overall US foreign policy objectives. And shunning the EU as a foreign policy actor may certainly work in the Indo-Pacific, but is less cost-free in the European neighborhood of the UK—which has now a lower priority for the US. The first big political success of Global Britain comes with a cost. 

For Germany and the EU this raises three strategic questions. First, the positioning in a G2-world: In the global competition between the US and China, the UK has now firmly chosen the former. The EU, Germany, or France’s approach is more nuanced, treating China as a systemic rival, competitor but also at times as an opportunity and partner. Will the EU have to align, or can it develop its own path?

Second, the future of NATO:  While still praising NATO, London has opted for a more flexible alliance with AUKUS, building upon the long-established links of the Five Eyes community in the Anglosphere. Germany, at least rhetorically, prefers institutionalized alliances. But in the Indo-Pacific, Germany sees various and changing formats that show the unsettling future of Western alliances.  

Besides, although London insists AUKUS is not directed against France, Paris perceived the secrecy with which it was negotiated as a betrayal. It also seems to retrospectively justify President Emmanuel Macron’s 2019 analysis that NATO was politically braindead, with two allies (UK, US) stabbing a third (France) in the back. While the Franco-US relationship seems ready to be repaired after presidents Macron and Biden talked on Sept 22, the UK-French axis is likely to suffer far longer. This certainly doesn’t contribute toward keeping the NATO house together at a moment when it needs unity to update its Strategic Concept. 

Third, London’s break with the EU brings with it the question of how and where to organize European security and defense. While the US remains committed to NATO, both Afghanistan and AUKUS show that its strategic focus is elsewhere. French and German politicians are therefore calling yet again for Europeans to do more autonomously, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen just scheduled an EU defense summit for 2022. But European strategic autonomy without any contribution from the UK and in opposition to the US is neither realistic nor in Germany’s interest. Should Berlin and Paris increase their efforts for defense cooperation at the EU level, or play London’s games of more minilateral cooperation? Clearly, for all the Brexit woes, “Global Britain” will remain part of the European strategic landscape.

Claudia Major is head of the international security research division at the German Institute for International Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

Nicolai von Ondarza is head of the Europe/EU research division at the SWP.

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