The British remain deeply divided about their country’s proper place in the post-Brexit world. Yet there are certain underlying attitudes towards foreigners that they have all imbibed with their mothers’ milk. One is their fondness for Australia (so many family ties; Ashes cricket; all those seductive soap operas). Another is the desire for the Americans, no matter what they think of them, to treat the United Kingdom with respect – and recognise that it still counts. And, of course, there is the pleasure the British always take in getting one over on the French (That Sweet Enemy, as an excellent history of the bilateral relationship is entitled).
No surprise, then, that last week’s announcement of the new AUKUS defence partnership, ticking all the above boxes, should have been generally well-received in the UK. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was happy to hold out to Parliament the prospect of “hundreds of highly skilled jobs”. The right-wing press was relieved to celebrate the apparent injection of some real substance to the so-far nebulous concept of Global Britain. For the prime minister, it was also a welcome chance to move on from post-mortems of the inglorious end to Britain’s Afghan misadventure. As Johnson headed to the White House, British officials were happy to imply that America’s reopening to European travellers, and President Joe Biden’s (underwhelming) pledge of new money to help poorer nations fight the climate crisis, were evidence of the restored efficacy of what they are now at pains not to call the “special relationship”.
Alas, the sugar rush did not last long. The main story coming out of the White House meeting was Biden’s reminder that the Brexiteers could forget their dream of an early trade deal with the United States, at least whilst Johnson persists in his reckless efforts to nullify the Northern Ireland Protocol – a foundation stone of his own Brexit deal. And AUKUS itself is raising awkward questions. As ex-prime minister Theresa May asked in Parliament, what would be the implications of the deal for British involvement if China attacked Taiwan? The nineteenth century British Empire, with its unrivalled naval might and domination of world trade, may have felt free to intervene in conflicts wherever it wished. But does it really make sense for a medium-sized power with a faltering economy to attempt to reprise that role today, on the far side of the globe?
Moreover, as brutal as China’s recent repression of Hong Kong and bullying of Australia has been, can the British really afford to antagonise the Chinese in their own backyard when, not so long ago, their markets and investment were cited as reasons for uncoupling from Europe with high confidence? And can the UK really expect an infuriated France to exert itself to block the cross-Channel illegal migration flows that have occasioned so much hyperventilation by the government in London this summer? Or the European Union, humiliated by AUKUS torpedoing the launch of its Indo-Pacific Strategy, to hold back from trade sanctions if Johnson persists in playing fast and loose with the Northern Ireland Protocol?
Then, of course, there is the question of what the British will actually get out of the new partnership. Clearly, the UK is not going to be building the submarines, after the unholy mess it has made of its latest Astute-class hunter-killer boats. There have been vague references to wider cooperation in areas such as artificial intelligence, but the only specific programmes mentioned – such as those to supply the Australians with Tomahawks, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, and Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles – concern American weapons systems. Is the UK, then, as the French have disobligingly suggested, just a fifth wheel on the carriage? What are the British expected to bring to the party – or, to put it another way, what slice of the pie may the Americans allow them?
The answer may lie in the Americans’ profound aversion to sharing their nuclear propulsion technology with any ally, no matter how close. They have done so only once, in 1958, to get the British started – and only after an almighty internal row to overcome the opposition of the almost-sovereign Office of Naval Reactors, under the legendary Admiral Hyman Rickover. After that, the shutters came down again; the British have been expected to manage on their own ever since. After 60 years, it is a fair bet that the once-common technology has evolved in significantly different ways. So, perhaps the Americans would feel more comfortable allowing the British to supply the nuclear propulsion plants, and to keep their own, almost certainly more advanced, technology under wraps? Or perhaps this is all still to be decided: a future submarine task force is to be allowed up to 18 months to determine the best way to acquire the boats.
For now, then, the initial high of being able to announce this surprise new partnership has faded for Johnson, who has returned from the US to face a less congenial domestic agenda – growing supply-chain difficulties, and a mounting cost-of-living crisis as energy prices skyrocket, the tax burden increases to its highest level for 70 years to keep the health service from collapse, and millions of the poorest families prepare to lose a critical £20-per-week welfare supplement. Winter is coming, and the palm-fringed shores of the Indo-Pacific will seem a very long way away.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.