US Alliances, Global Challenges: Reluctant Allies, Rising Rivals

A Game of Three-Dimensional Chess with Nuclear Options
A virtual meeting with leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries on March 12, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images
US President Joe Biden participates is a virtual press conference on national security with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on September 15, 2021. Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowski, AFP

When US President Joe Biden took office early this year, no shifts in US foreign policy and its global alliances were noticed. Instead, the United States altered its orientation and stance on many issues and regions in light of recent developments marked by Russia’s aspiration to restore its old glory and China’s rise and attempts to translate its economic power into a political force and participate in managing world affairs. China has long rejected US unilateralism and dominance following the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet system in the early 1990s. However, this dominance did not last long especially after the September 2001 events took place and the US decided to occupy Afghanistan in 2001, then Iraq in 2003, opening new conflicts and colonial hotbeds that drained its capabilities and prevented it from implementing its agenda. 

Twenty years later, the new administration implemented former president Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from these areas without consulting its allies who had been fighting alongside it in the battle against terrorism. This step clearly indicated the new US foreign policy of disengaging its association with allies and redrawing its map of alliances by prioritizing its interests in application of the motto, “America first.”

The US actions prompted its allies in the West, excluding Britain ــ which had recently withdrawn from the European Union ــ to reconsider the means of ensuring their security and stability in light of a division among NATO members over the sources of the threats.

Only few days after the US unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States, Britain and Australia announced a new Indo-Pacific security alliance, dubbed AUKUS. France said it was blindsided by an Australian “stab in the back” after it lost a deal with Australia to build nuclear powered submarines.

On September 24, the White House announced that it was hosting the prime ministers of Australia, India and Japan for the first-ever in-person Leaders’ Summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). Leaders of the four-member bloc first held a virtual meeting in March. 

Maritime cooperation among its members began after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Its activities were later frozen before Biden reactivated them earlier this year. 

In light of these unprecedented developments, many questions were raised about US intentions. 

Among the questions are: To what extent would the US recent steps affect its interests in the areas in which it reduced its presence in return for bolstering this presence in the Indo-Pacific region? What do US allies think about this new policy? What is the reaction of the parties against which this policy is practiced, particularly China and Russia? Could this new policy push China and Russia to form alliances with European parties that reject the new US trends? What about the regional parties that have publicly expressed their solidarity with the United States in confronting China, specifically India, Australia and Japan?

This report reviews three main topics that provide answers for the questions raised.

First: US Foreign Policy, Difficulty in Achieving Balance

US foreign policy adopts the slogan and concept of “America first.” Despite the ease of declaring this slogan, it is difficult to be implemented on the ground, in light of the amount of US ties globally and regionally, as well as the challenges it faces. This makes it difficult for this policy to achieve balance in view of its orientation with the US’ existing and new alliances.

The US, Australia and Britain have recently decided to establish a security pact for the Indo-Pacific region. It includes cooperation on “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities.” Under the pact, Australia would acquire new long-range strike capabilities for its air force, navy and army. It gives Australia secret technology to build nuclear-powered submarines, though not equipped with nuclear weapons.

Australia said it would scrap an almost $60 billion deal signed in 2016 for France’s Naval Group to build a fleet of conventional submarines and would instead build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines with US and British technology.

This decision sparked rage in Paris, prompting it to recall its ambassadors from the US and Australia and escalate its discourse against this rapprochement. 

The pact is “designed not only to strengthen our capabilities in the Indo-Pacific but to link Europe, and particularly Great Britain, more closely with our strategic pursuits in the region as a whole,” a White House statement read. 

This statement reflects a varying US vision in dealing with European partners. It tends to give priority to Britain which has recently left the European Union and seeks to form an alliance with the US.

“The American choice to push aside a European ally and partner like France from a structural partnership with Australia at a time we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region ... shows a lack of coherence that France can only acknowledge and regret,” the French Foreign Ministry stressed in mid-September. 

Although the US was aware of the consequences of such a decision on Paris, it did not consider them when it decided to form its trilateral pact. In addition to the huge financial loss, Paris also incurred a geopolitical loss that could affect its interests. Cancelling the so-called “contract of the century” results in the exclusion of France from Indo-Pacific area.

Second: Allies and the search for new security and economic approaches

The recent US decision to form new alliances away from its NATO partners was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Trump’s unilateral decisions earlier concerned the allies, who became aware that the US aimed to achieve its interests only, especially in light of the escalation of the US-China trade war. Although this war served the European market well in the face of the invasion of Chinese industries, yet it showed that the decision makers gave priority to US interests regardless of the negative effects on the allies’ economies.

Ex-administration officials were keen to reassure their allies that Washington would abide by its international covenants and underscored the importance of US alliances across the world. This helped preserve relations with all NATO members, especially after the inauguration of Biden. His first overseas trip in June to meet European partners indicated he would proceed with the same US approach. 

“The US and EU agreed to suspend our tariffs for five years, and we committed to ensuring a level playing field for our companies and our workers,” he said, in reference to settling differences over the aircraft, steel and aluminum industries.

However, Europeans could not rely on these reassurances for their continued dependence on Washington’s power and influence. Rather, this dependence began to decline, prompting them to search for new approaches, mainly relying more on the continent’s capacities and gradually getting rid of complete dependence on US protection.

“The regrettable decision just announced on the Future Submarine Program only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy. There is no other credible path for defending our interests and values around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region,” a French foreign ministry statement read.

Europeans also decided to establish independent security systems separate from the existing international blocs, such as the NATO. They also considered the possibility of establishing an independent political project that would enhance the ability to face challenges without relying heavily on US protection or support.

Confidence has been shaken on both sides of the Atlantic, especially from France and Germany which consider the US policy unstable and believe it cannot address these challenges. Although they agree with the US on the need to confront the Chinese rise and the Russian resurgence, they request full coordination with the allies to protect their threatened common interests, and not the US interests alone.

The US allies may not consider containing China and Russia an option due to the number and magnitude of their economic ties. 

Third: Two New Rivals and the Search for a New Approach to   Confrontation 

The US seeks to confront the two new rivals, Russia and China, by adopting a policy based on building alliances with both countries’ geographic neighbors to encircle them and threaten their interests. The plan represents an alternative to the direct confrontation approach, which is very costly for everyone.

While Washington agrees to hold political talks with Moscow, such as the recent meeting in Geneva, it refuses to hold rounds of talks with China.

Instead, it tries to market its new alliances (AUKUS, the Quad) as a means to confront any possible threat, a message well received by Beijing, which says US policy will undermine regional stability. China cited the latest US decision to provide Australia with nuclear submarines, which, it believes, may lead to an acceleration of the arms race in the region.

Meanwhile, Washington has been trying to neutralize the Russian stance or isolate it from the upcoming conflict with Beijing.

Moscow is aware that if it abandons Beijing now, it will engage in the same confrontation later after the conflict is resolved in favor of the US. Therefore, both partners are looking for a new approach that would enable them to confront Washington’s encirclement policy. They recognize the challenges they would face, especially in regards to each country’s ties and differences with the member states of the new US alliance.

Moscow and Beijing agree on their rivalry with Japan and Britain, yet Russia has close ties with India, which joined the pact to confront China. This complexity makes it difficult for both countries to create a joint strategy to face the US new alliances.

Nevertheless, both sides have an opportunity to build an alliance with some European parties that reject the US approach, provided that they remain cautious since the US is known for its ability to contain crises and dispel doubts. 

What makes the current crisis different is that it comes in light of a new US vision in managing the world on the one hand, and the multiplicity of international actors immersed in the crisis on the other hand. Moreover, France is scheduled to hold its presidential elections in April 2022, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel will step down once a new government is formed. 

In short, the US must be aware that building new alliances in constantly changing conditions across the world is as difficult as managing conflicts since the absence of governing rules in building and managing the alliance turns the project into a conflict that threatens regional and international peace and security.


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