AUKUS, the Macron doctrine, and the return of American hegemony – Revue de Presse, 19 March 2023

19 March 2023

When the ‘AUKUS’ deal was announced in September 2021, it was met with a mixture of outrage and scepticism in Paris. Although Australia’s decision to renege on its €31 billion contract for a new generation of Attack Class submarines with France led Paris to recall its ambassadors to Australia and the United States, it has been widely reported that the Elysée remained sceptical that the deal would actually materialise. Australia’s ‘stab in the back’, as France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian termed it, prompted much sound and fury towards the perfidious monde anglo-saxon but also a quiet confidence that French military industry could still prevail.


Yet the deal did materialise, signed by US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this week in San Diego. The details of this deal are familiar and do not need repeating at length. One does not need to agree with former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating’s hyperbolic claim that AUKUS was the “worst deal in all history” to agree with him that AUKUS is oriented almost solely towards containing rising Chinese military power in the Indo-Pacific.


What is more remarkable is that the return of the AUKUS issue to the headlines has not prompted renewed recriminations between France and the United States, Australia, and the ‘spare wheel’ Britain, even as France has attempted to avoid ‘bloc thinking’ which might strain ties with China. In The Spectator John Keiger has somewhat facetiously suggested that Macron may be “dreaming of Aukus becoming Fraukus”, but we are probably better off seeing France’s reaction as part of a broader retrenchment of the US and NATO-aligned Western bloc.


Indeed, the logic of Le Figaro’s declaration last week that, “After the Aukus betrayal, the Ukraine war [has brought] France and the United Kingdom together” extends far beyond the long and turbulent Anglo-French romance. Since 2016, the story runs, the Western alliance has been in crisis, undermined by Brexit, the diplomatically idiosyncratic presidency of Donald Trump, and the effervescence of national populism in the developed world. In, 2019 Emmanuel Macron would go so far as to declare NATO to be ‘brain dead’ and in a widely publicised 2020 interview entitled ‘The Macron Doctrine’the French President seemed to herald a return to the old Gaullist policy of a Europe beholden to neither Washington nor Moscow (or Beijing).


Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year, however, this trend has been arrested and has even begun to reverse. Although Russian aggression has prompted limited European rearmament, its main effect has been the revivification of the United States’ stagnating role as military coordinator and hegemon in Western and Central Europe.


Yet with the glue hardly dry, old cracks and contradictions in the Western bloc are beginning to reopen. In the Cold War and the 1990s, America could act as, the American political scientist John Ikenberry has put it, as a ‘Liberal Leviathan’ for her allies, coordinating their otherwise disordered relations as though it were sovereign, because her own interest as a hegemon coincided with the preservation of an open ‘rules based’ international order. But with declining willingness to support unending foreign military and financial commitments at home and the rise of credible rivals abroad, those interests no longer cohere perfectly. As Adam Tooze noted late last year, the United States’ commitment to maintaining its position at the head of an open international order hardly coincides with some of the more protectionist instincts behind the Biden administration’s domestic green industrial policy.


Some of the architects of the supposed ‘new protectionism’, including Joe Manchin, have tentatively gestured towards a more flexible interpretation of the Inflation Reduction Act’s provisions centred around treating the EU as though it enjoyed free trade with the US. At the same time, European policy makers appear to have softened their position on the IRA, and an EU-US trade war seems to have been averted.


But the contradictions between the United States’ increasing commitment to shoring up its own manufacturing industry against Chinese competition through a resort to protectionism and the needs of the hegemonic world system it sometimes aspires to operate remain. If a potent force for now, the temporary coherence brought on by international crisis will not always keep the Western bloc hanging together. Then again, in the week which marked the hundred and fortieth anniversary of the death of Karl Marx, we would be wise not to pretend systems cannot outlast the discovery of their inherent contradictions.

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