Submarine Deal Triggers a Crisis in NATO

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France’s decision to call back its ambassadors from the US and Australia over the latter’s decision to cancel its deal with France and buy nuclear-powered submarines from the US has triggered a crisis in NATO. French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the turn of events a stab in the back. “We had established a trusting relationship with Australia, and this trust was betrayed,” he said. This crisis not only sheds light on the growing irrelevance of NATO in the emerging ‘cold war 2.0’ with China, but also shows that Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House has not really reversed the damage the Trump administration was thought to have done to the alliance. “The American decision, which leads to the exclusion of a European ally and partner like France from a crucial partnership with Australia at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, be it over our values or respect for a multilateralism based on the rule of law, signals a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret,” Le Drain added.

Biden’s decision to establish a new alliance involving Australia, the US and the UK is only a continuation of a series of decisions the US has been taking over the past few years to recalibrate its global position in light of its most recent threat assessments. In April, when Biden made his decision to pull out, NATO had some 7,000 troops in the country compared with 2,500 Americans. When in July, Biden ordered the evacuation of the Bagram joint military air base in Afghanistan, he not only failed to inform the Afghan government ahead of time, but also failed to coordinate with NATO.

While Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan dealt a blow to NATO’s twenty-year war, with the chaos coinciding with and following withdrawal indicating a declining West, the new alliance is going to make Europe even more irrelevant for the US, accelerating an eventual ideological and institutional downfall of the ‘West.’ As some western analysts themselves have pointed out, it is because of the US’ growing focus away from Europe that partly convinced Biden to lift the restrictions it had placed to block the completion of Nord Stream 2 project. Therefore, even though the US decision did ignore the interests and concerns of some of its allies in eastern Europe, it only speaks about the growing distance between Europe/EU and the US foreign policy.

For France – which has been advocating building a European security infrastructure independent of the US – the US’ growing distance with Europe presents yet another reason for pursuing the stated goal of ‘European strategic autonomy.’

For Washington, however, the US policies need to change according to the global scenario. With growing rivalry with China necessitating a shift towards east Asia and the Indo-Pacific, there is little room for the US to address European concerns the way it did during the Cold War when the possibility of westward ‘Soviet expansion’ was seen as an existential threat.

The Joe Biden administration is, accordingly, reconfiguring its policies and relations. Joe Biden is expected to meet the heads of Japan, Australia and India on September 23 in what is going to be the first ever face-to-face meeting of the QUAD leaders.

Europe, obviously, has no role in this configuration. But what really makes this deal and alliance important is that it directly undercuts France’s own standing in the Indo-Pacific ocean. For instance, while the Australia-France deal was a massive commercial venture, it was geo-politically crucial too in that it was supposed to be the cornerstone of France’s own Indo-Pacific position and interests. It was part of France-Australia Indo-Pacific security partnership agreed in 2016 and reassessed earlier this year.

For the US, however, the reason to shut France/the EU/NATO out of the deal and alliance is logical in as much as the EU, in the US calculation, could hardly be relied upon as an effective challenge to China. Last year, the EU signed an investment deal with China ignoring the US concerns. Now that the US has hit back by stabbing France in the back, the EU/NATO face a crisis that could upend its institutional standing, as well as its relations with the US permanently.

There is no denying that the US-EU relations cannot be like they were during Cold War. Some hard strategic readjustments need to be made to stay relevant in the changing global order. The crisis is, in many ways, a crude reflection of the changes both the EU and the US have been making for quite some time now. Whereas the US has been looking for allies willing to take on China, the EU has been seeking ways to frame and purse its interests independently of the US. So, even though the EU has concerns about China, it does not seek to build an alliance based upon hard military competition, something that the EU’s most recent Indo-Pacific Strategy document lays out in some detail. Germany’s Chancellor Angel Merkel has been persistent in describing China not as “a major challenge” and that NATO must not “simply negate China.”

It is, therefore, not hard to imagine why the US and the EU countries are a mismatch for competition with China. Given the fact that global power struggle is unfolding in east Asia and the Indo-Pacific, NATO faces some crucial questions. While this is not to suggest that NATO will dismantle and disintegrate, the fact that this organisation is unlikely to play any role against China means that the US will be less than willing to commit resources to ensure its continuation and relevance. While Russia does remain relevant for Europe and NATO, it is China, not Russia, that the US is seeking to compete in the 21st century. Although US-Russia rivalry remains very much alive, it is quite unlike the Cold War competition and does not require an open-ended US commitment to and presence in Europe.

Besides it, the ideological congruence that once defined transatlantic ties appears to be eroding fast to create new possibilities, including an EU-Russia permanent normalisation. This is quite possible, particularly evident from the Nord Stream 2 project. An EU-Russia normalisation will further make the US and the EU irrelevant for each other. If the present trajectory continues, both the US and the EU will end up developing independent approaches, rather than a common front, to relations with Russia and China. These approaches will not only reinforce ‘multilaterality’, but also significantly change the nature of global conflict and competition.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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