What the AUKUS alliance says about America’s grand strategy

What the AUKUS alliance says about America’s grand strategy

What the AUKUS alliance says about America’s grand strategy
The nuclear-powered fast attack submarine USS Tucson. (Reuters)
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The announcement last September of the new trilateral security pact between the US, UK and Australia came as a surprise to most observers, including America’s allies. That the US strategic interest continues to shift to the Indo-Pacific is no surprise. But that the US should choose this particular approach, these particular allies and would even risk the ire of some of its other close allies to forge this pact most certainly was. This signals a substantive shift in global positioning from the US. But to what end?
Since the Second World War, the paramount pillar of America’s global security structure has been NATO. The relative importance of NATO in the global balance of power has waned in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the shift to the War on Terror post-9/11, but the alliance remained America’s foremost tool of international power projection.
However, the AUKUS announcement — more than anything else that has happened in the past three decades — signals that Washington is moving on from the North Atlantic and from Europe. Europe will remain militarily dependent on the American security shield, at least for the time being, but America’s attention is now entirely focused on the rise of China as a challenger to its global hegemony.
Given this shift of attention, a grouping like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — composed of the US, Japan, India and Australia — makes immediate and obvious sense. These are all regional players in the Indo-Pacific and are all bound by the same anxiety caused by Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the region. What needs an explanation is why Washington deems the UK to be a key player in the Indo-Pacific, given that it is geographically located on the exact opposite side of the globe, and why the US would risk a deep rift with France, its key NATO ally in continental Europe, in order to secure its ties to Australia.
The importance of the UK in this nexus is likely because the US-UK security relationship will serve as the template for the kind of relationship Washington wants to develop with Australia. We can think of the US-UK “special relationship” as being extended to also include Canberra.
No other countries in the world have the kind of military, intelligence and technological integration as the US and UK do. If London often appears to be slavishly following American geopolitical initiatives, even when the domestic political wisdom of doing so appears questionable on the surface, it is because the UK made the decision, following the Second World War, that the best way to guarantee its security in the Cold War was to make the US crucially invested in its defense, while also making itself operationally essential to America’s global deployments.
This analysis is reinforced by the areas of focus of AUKUS beyond the headline submarine fleet; namely, artificial intelligence and cyber and quantum technologies, all areas in which the UK and the US research ecosystems, both at the state and private sector levels, are inextricably intertwined. Moreover, the US military doctrine has evolved in recent years to increasingly focus on these areas, while the UK’s latest integrated review of defense capabilities specifically targets these areas as the main focus of the country’s future specialization within the framework of the American security guarantee.

Australia’s submarine fleet will serve as a US military tool, enhancing Washington’s surveillance capabilities in the Indo-Pacific.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The essence of the special relationship is that the UK pays for its American security guarantee with operational and intelligence support for US overseas deployments, where London has developed particular expertise in special operations and other niche, highly specialized capabilities. It also contributes financially through its decades-long program of purchasing American submarines as the sole tool to deploy its nominally “independent” nuclear deterrent. In exchange, the US would defend the UK as it would its own heartland.
That is why it is particularly apposite that the most advertised aspect of the AUKUS arrangement will be that Australia will be purchasing nuclear-fueled submarines from the US in the same way the UK does — though Australia’s submarine fleet will not be equipped with warheads and it will remain a non-nuclear state. Just like the UK’s deployment of US-made and serviced submarines, Australia’s fleet, also nominally under the independent command of Canberra, will serve as a US military tool, enhancing Washington’s surveillance capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, while also keeping costs low. This comes at the price of guaranteeing Australia’s security: An undertaking that Washington would have been practically bound to in any case, for a number of other good reasons.
The strategic outlook underpinning the AUKUS pact is therefore perfectly sound. The main concerns about it relate to the way that the announcement of the pact was handled by all three nations, especially as it concerns their other allies.
With all that being said, it is paramount that both the US and the UK seek to reassure their European friends and allies that they remain invested in the security of Europe and that relations are not allowed to deteriorate any further. If the US calculation that a new cold war with China is brewing is correct, we will still need to have the Europeans firmly on our side, even if their integration into US military structures remains much more limited.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the Director of Special Initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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