Wednesday, October 20

The crisis between France and the United States could divide the entire West

  • Iver B. Neumann
    Iver B. Neumann

    Director, Fridtjof Nansen Institute

Whether Australia buys submarines from France or the United States is not just a business option, but also a security policy, the columnist writes. Here, French President Emmanuel Macron is getting out of a French submarine in 2019.

Seen from Norway, such a situation is particularly regrettable.

This is a discussion post. Opinions in the text are the responsibility of the writer.

The current diplomatic crisis between France and the United States is part of a series of unfortunate events that could end up dividing the West.

The case that triggered the crisis is important enough. Big military deals are not just a huge lump sum.

Buyback clauses mean that overall trading increases. The need for maintenance, spare parts and upgrades means that downtime is long.

If Australia buys submarines from France or the US, or if Norway buys fighter jets from the US or Sweden, it is not just a business option, but also a safety policy. It is simply a concretization of the general orientation of a country’s foreign policy.

When Australia chooses the US over France, it’s about more than just choosing a new supplier for a single purchase.

Update the old tension

This is not the first time the United States has bypassed France.

When President Emmanuel Macron emphasizes the lack of information from the United States in the case and points out that this is not appropriate for an ally, it is in keeping with a long French tradition.

The lack of respect and information for France was one of the reasons why President Charles de Gaulle resigned from France’s participation in NATO.

France has been a full member of NATO for more than ten years. But complaints that the United States does not live up to France’s expectations of how to treat an ally have not been silenced.

This crisis adds to the burden on France and will drive those who wish to remove France from NATO once again. The crisis thus updates an old tension between France and the United States and may lead to further division in NATO.

The main axis of the Pacific Ocean

The area in which the current crisis is unfolding accentuates its severity.

The current international system has two superpowers or global powers: the United States and China. The main axis between them runs in the Pacific Ocean. This means that all the other powers that aspire to play a global role must also be present there.

France, which traditionally has a strong presence in the Pacific through current possessions and ties to former colonies, spends many resources to further increase its presence.

The sale of submarines to Australia, which the United States has now thwarted, was intended to be part of this escalation. In France’s view, the United States is strengthening its position along the main axis with China, and is doing so by deliberately excluding France and Europe.

The division between France and Europe, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other, is therefore not an exclusive matter for NATO. It is also about the general geopolitical location.

Military cooperation in intelligence matters

However, the crisis has even greater potential to divide Europe and the United States than will result from NATO-oriented conditions and the parties’ general geopolitical location.

Central here is an organization that is much less well known than the EU and NATO, but which is very important. This is the so-called Five Eyes collaboration between the USA, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

It is an intelligence cooperation that has its roots in the close cooperation between allied English-speaking countries during World War II and grew strongly during the Cold War. Especially in recent years, this has also been an important place for the coordination (and discussion) of policy towards China.

It seems obvious that Five Eyes cooperation, which therefore applies to military cooperation in intelligence matters, has also been of such relevant importance to the talks between the United States and Australia on the acquisition of military equipment.

But if Five Eyes is directly relevant to the current crisis, it is its general role that is most important when the issue is the division of the West.

After the UK left the EU, there is no longer any overlap between the institutionalization of the English-speaking world in Five Eyes, on the one hand, and the EU, on the other. When France faces the United States and Australia on a matter of military equipment, we are also talking about a conflict between the EU, on the one hand, and the English-speaking part of the West, on the other.

The crisis also affects Norway

Seen from Norway, such a situation is particularly regrettable. Norway is not a member of the EU or Five Eyes. Our most important European ally is Germany. This is then also in official policy: Germany’s strategy of the Foreign Ministry opens up by stating that Germany is Norway’s most important European ally.

However, traditionally the UK has been the most important. With Brexit, the UK has tried even more than before to emphasize its “special relationship” with the US. Britain has again sought to be closer to its former settler colonies in Australia and New Zealand.

This is how it should be. For the UK, of course, other constellations of cooperation that the country is a part of, such as “the special relationship” with the United States, cooperation with the Commonwealth countries and the Five Eyes, became more important as the cooperation operation in the EU declined.

This also eliminates the country of Norway. Norway is therefore in an increasingly tight spot between the United States and the United Kingdom, on the one hand, and the EU, on the other. When the division between these two parts of the West grows greater, the pressure on Norway becomes more difficult. Therefore, this crisis also affects Norway.

Increased cost of being outside the EU

The current crisis is unlikely to be the nail in the coffin of the West. The place where they have tried to avoid possible divisions between the West has therefore been in the memory of NATO. This crisis is likely to slide as well.

But the distance increases. With Biden, it has become very clear that even under democratic presidents, the United States will be less Atlantic and more Pacific-oriented, with less free trade and more protectionism than before.

In three or seven years there will be a new Republican president in the United States. We know little about who it will be, other than that the person will have a non-European style, be it because they are an isolationist, an evangelical Christian, a militarist, or perhaps all three.

Given Norway’s exclusion from the EU, our eggs are in the basket of English-speaking western powers. The current crisis underscores that the political costs of exclusion from the EU are increasing.

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