The West's hasty retreat from Afghanistan has brought home changing realities of global politics. It exposed a more introverted America, reluctant to use its military clout to meet its foreign policy goals; Britain trapped in the shadow of America's decisions; Europe unsure about what it can do in the world; and the West as a whole facing consequences of its failure to be strategic.
Enter a new trilateral security partnership between the UK, US and Australia – dubbed "Aukus" – which was announced with much controversy last week. The trio presented it as a new security alliance that would develop new joint capabilities in a move to curb China’s reach in the Indo-Pacific. It has both challenged the image of a retreating America post-Afghanistan and reinforced the view that tectonic plates of geopolitics are shifting.
Much of the controversy has had to do with cutting France out of its lucrative $90bn submarine contract with Canberra. In London, the deal has been seen as an affirmation of post-Brexit "Global Britain"; in Paris, as a "stab in the back" by its allies; and, across European capitals, as the clearest sign yet that Britain is distancing itself from the continent, that America is singularly focused on the growing threat from China in the Indo-Pacific, and that Europe lacks “strategic autonomy” – the ability to act in the world without its allies.
It would be wiser to see Aukus for what it is: a security deal that signals to China that the US is not retreating from the world, with Washington backing Canberra in a strategically important region. The US asserting itself to equip its key ally with the latest technology and long-range missiles is a response to what Washington sees as the primary geopolitical threat to US interests: China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. Nor is there anything to suggest that the deal would not have materialised had the UK remained a member of the EU, though perhaps it might have been handled differently by Britain.
Among their many implications, recent weeks have exposed a reality in which Britain and the EU, following five years of haggling over Brexit, find it harder than ever to work together even in areas where their interests intersect. Recent days, with the relations between Paris and London falling to a new low, have shown how quickly close allies can fall out when they fail to cooperate.
Part of the reason for this is that security and defence ties between Britain and the continent have been severed after leaving the EU. Brexit has meant a more radical break with the EU than in any other sphere of policy; unlike on trade, there is no common agreement on security and foreign policy, nor regular political dialogue between leaders on these issues.
Beyond day-to-day diplomatic contacts between London and EU capitals, there is little coordination of policy or strategy. The result, as has been evident with the past weeks, is a growing gulf between two long-standing allies that have more in common that either would care to admit.
It is true that the EU has tried to convince Britain of the case for an agreement on security during the Brexit negotiations. The UK government, reluctant to maintain active links with EU institutions in its post-Brexit life, argued in favour of bilateral relations with member-states. As recently as last Friday, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutter repeated the offer of a formal UK-EU defence agreement to his British counterpart Boris Johnson.
Britain would be wise to reconsider this offer. Maintaining close relations with EU capitals and in informal groups like the E3 – France, Germany and the UK – is important. But there are limits to what these groupings can achieve. EU member-states operate in an EU framework – coordinating action and strategy – and targeted bilateral engagement is often seen to undermine the coherence of that framework. What's more, distancing itself from its close partners will only deprive the UK of opportunities to influence the EU in ways that advance British foreign policy and security interests.
What the two sides need now is not another treaty, even if such an agreement were beneficial. It would much more productive for Britain and the EU to address two problems.
One is the absence of a forum for regular contact between British and European leaders on issues of mutual interest, including foreign policy and external security. Establishing a strategic leaders-level dialogue – dedicated to advancing a constructive agenda on policy issues of mutual interest – would go some way in addressing this gap. EU institutions could be represented in this format, but they wouldn't be the main point of contact for the British government. Think of it not as an extravagant annual summit, but rather a video link that can be set up quickly and without too much diplomatic effort in moments of crisis.
The second is the absence of coordinated working-level relationships. Having bilateral relations is useful, but it is a poor substitute in situations where multiple actors need to coordinate policy and action – and to do it rapidly. And, without maintaining regular contact between senior officials, no leaders-level dialogue can succeed.
If Britain and the EU want to be meaningful foreign policy actors in a changing global environment, they need each other. Britain cannot divorce its foreign policy from the reality in which it is embedded in the European neighbourhood. For Europe, Britain is the closest ally and, on many matters, its bridge to America. The events of recent weeks have delivered worrying lessons of what happens if they fail to cooperate. They should learn from that.