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Now Europe is free of its Anglo problem Charles de Gaulle would be pleased by the British-American alliance

The best of friends. Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The best of friends. Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


September 27, 2021   8 mins

If, for argument’s sake, you were a pan-European nationalist committed to the bloc’s consolidation as a sovereign, continental power, the tone of the Brexit debate within Britain would surely have been mystifying. While FBPE partisans relentlessly waved EU flags to signal their commitment to the project on Britain’s behalf, a broader view would have led them to the conclusion that Britain’s removal from the European Union would be a necessary sacrifice towards enabling true European integration.

For on the topic of Britain’s relationship with Europe, as with most things, we can now say that de Gaulle was right: Britain was always an awkward partner within the bloc, consistently applying the brakes to further integration. As he observed in his 1963 speech torpedoing Britain’s membership application to the European Community, “England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries.”

No doubt de Gaulle, as Julian Jackson’s excellent recent biography notes, was influenced by memories of “that primal scene of an incandescent Churchill shouting on 4 June 1944 that in a choice between ‘Europe and the open sea’ he would always choose the latter.” For after all, as he told Macmillan in a sweeping assessment of Britain’s national character and destiny, “the sense of being an island remains very strong with you. England looks to the sea, towards wider horizons. She remains very linked to the United States by language, by habits and by certain agreements. The natural course of your policy leads you to seek the agreement of the Americans because you are ‘mondiaux’ 
 Your entry will change everything.”

Imbued with a sense of France’s destiny and national glory, the general was pained by, in Jackson’s phrasing, “a bewilderment that Britain had allowed herself to lose a sense of national ambition and become, in his eyes, an American satellite”. As de Gaulle stated, once the United States entered the war, Churchill had “passed the flame on to the Americans and abased himself before them.”

Gently discouraging British hopes of EC membership at the 1962 Rambouillet summit, he told Macmillan that by the middle of the war “power had passed to the United States and Britain had very reasonably decided to align herself with the Americans in the belief that this was the best way she could influence United States policy. He quite saw that the United Kingdom had not entirely abandoned hope that this policy might still be successful.” Speaking frankly to his own advisers, de Gaulle put the matter more bluntly: “the English console themselves with their decline by claiming that they share in American hegemony.”

It is not hard to see the continued relevance of de Gaulle’s musings on Britain’s essential nature in France’s reactions to the Aukus announcement, as when France’s foreign minister Yves le Drian remarked of Britain, “the fifth wheel on the wagon”, that “we know their permanent opportunism”. As France’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, ClĂ©ment Beaune, noted with haughty disregard, “Our British friends explained to us that they were leaving the E.U. to create ‘global Britain’, but “we can see that this is a return to the American fold and a form of accepted vassalisation.” Indeed, he added, “The UK is clearly trying to find its feet, perhaps there was a lack of thought about the strategic future
 We see through this partnership, this strategic alliance and after the Kabul crisis, that Global Britain seems to be more about a US junior partner than working with different allies.”

For all the cattiness of Beaune’s phrasing, which casts London’s eager subordination as something closer to an English perversion than a coherent strategic vision, he is not wrong. The Aukus agreement locks both Britain and Australia into an objectively junior role in America’s developing strategic posture in the Pacific, whatever that might turn out to be. Yet by the time the first of the new Australian submarines are actually deployed, in 20 years time, the outcome of the looming contest in the region will likely already have been decided. After all, American planners expect a confrontation over Taiwan to take place within the next six years. By the time Australia’s full complement of 12 submarines is reached, in the mid-2060s, most of the people now furiously discussing their role in a Taiwan conflict will long be dead, and the geopolitical environment will look at least as different as the world of Reagan and Brezhnev does to us now.

The submarines are not, therefore, the central point of the agreement, which we can interpret as a smaller, tighter auxiliary alliance complementing the role played by Five Eyes in locking the Anglophone defence establishment into the defence of the American-led order, with the wavering Canadians and New Zealanders left to follow their own future paths. As the French defence analyst Mathieu Duchñtel notes, the broader context of the Aukus agreement is one in which, unlike the situation in the 1990s, the US has already lost strategic dominance in the Taiwan Strait and the broader first island chain flanking China, and therefore seeks to establish greater strategic depth through basing options in Australia. Aukus may or may not be a good strategic bet— Australia’s most eminent strategists seem markedly more sceptical of its wisdom than their British equivalents — but either way, it is now seemingly inevitable.

What alternative strategy were the French offering? As a neighbour to Australia, with nearly two million French citizens living in its Pacific possessions, France has its own strategic interests in the region, which are not necessarily the same as Australia’s. We see hints of Macron’s thinking in his recent overtures to India — a member of the Quad but with its own independent foreign policy — with its assurances of French “commitment to the strengthening of India’s strategic autonomy, including its industry and technology base,” which, with its emphasis on “regional stability and the rule of law, while ruling out any form of hegemony,” indicates an interest in carving out space in a future multipolar order rather than a commitment to defend a waning unipolar one.

The long-standing Anglo-Saxon anxiety over French ambitions manifested itself in the recent esoteric Macronism of the Telegraph and Spectator, the former of which claimed that Macron was willing to donate its UN Security Council seat to the EU in exchange for pushing forward with strategic autonomy (a claim swiftly denied by France as the fantasies of an “English tabloid”), and the latter pronouncing that Macron seeks a “new order” under “undisputed French leadership
 which is to say, his own leadership”. Whether or not a united, consolidated Europe as a global power helmed by the continent’s most ambitious and openly civilisational thinker is a realistic prospect — or whether it is a desirable one — it is fair to say that the Aukus agreement, rather than acting as a check on French ambitions of strategic autonomy, has hastened their day in the sun.

As the American defence analyst and former State Department strategist Max Bergmann noted recently, the poorly-handled announcement of the Aukus deal strengthens Macron’s case for strategic autonomy, through undermining the Atlanticist faction within the French foreign policy establishment. “That the United States humiliated France in such a brazen way has discredited those views completely,” he says, “Instead, the episode will empower stakeholders in Paris who advocate for a much cooler relationship with Washington and — tapping into the Gaullist foreign policy tradition — wish to be allied with the United States, but not necessarily aligned on key issues related to Russia and China.”

As Bergmann points out, “the State Department has spent the last 23 years — ever since Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed reservations — vigorously opposing a greater defence role for the European Union. A generation of foreign service officers have thus spent their careers opposing the concept,” so that “the decrepit state of European militaries is a huge indictment of post-Cold War U.S. policy toward Europe
 In that sense, U.S. policy has been successful, since Europe is as dependent as ever. But this is not a good situation for the United States or Europe.”

The logic of the case is unarguable — as the eminent Australian defence strategist Hugh White remarks, for America, China “is the most formidable rival the country has ever faced, and it will demand huge sacrifices to defeat”. Among those sacrifices may well be America’s longstanding policy of keeping Europe militarily dependent. As the Biden administration rebalances its military power towards the Pacific, jettisoning unaffordable distractions like its long entanglements in the Muslim world, a Europe capable of defending itself in its volatile near abroad lightens the burden on the Pentagon. While Poland and the Baltic states may prefer the American military umbrella to a French-led one, not least because of Macron’s occasional flirtations with Russia, the choice of how America deploys its vast but finite military assets is ultimately not theirs to make.

Bergmann therefore urges the Biden administration to support the French push for heightened EU defence integration, arguing that if it is not pursued with America’s blessing, it may take place anyway in a form more obstructive to American goals, and besides, he may be pushing at an open door. The carefully-worded statement with which Macron and Biden healed their recent rift implies that France may have won a concession with its national fit of pique: “the United States also recognises the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO.” That is, Macron has seemingly won Biden’s cautious blessing for further European defence integration distinct from, though not in opposition to, NATO structures, a dramatic shift in American policy, and one partly enabled by Brexit.

After all, as Bergmann argues, America “used its influence to press E.U. members, such as the United Kingdom (before it withdrew from the European Union) and Poland, to oppose various E.U. defence proposals”, thereby justifying de Gaulle’s warning that by allowing the “Trojan horse” Britain’s membership of the EC “would take on the appearance of a colossal Atlantic community under American dependence and direction.” As the EU parliament explained in its official 2019 report into the effects of Brexit on European integration, on security questions, Britain functioned as “the leading blocker, most often out of a fear of jeopardising NATO and frustrating links with the USA”, and in doing so for decades “limited the EU’s ability to independently develop strategic outlooks and capabilities.”

Even after the Brexit vote, the then-defence minister Sir Michael Fallon promised to “continue to oppose any idea of an EU army, or an EU army headquarters which would simply undermine Nato,” insisting that “Nato must remain the cornerstone of our defence and the defence of Europe.” Within the EU, Britain eagerly fulfilled the role of America’s spoiler, watering down any efforts towards Europe-wide defence integration outside NATO structures, yet those days are now gone. For all the remaining dissent within the European Union over the idea, the Atlanticist pole has been weakened by Britain’s self-ejection from the bloc.

We can say then, that while Britain’s defence establishment congratulates itself over transferring its role as America’s junior partner to warmer Pacific waters, France’s loss of the submarine deal may paradoxically have strengthened its hand in pursuing its wider goal of strategic autonomy here in Europe, helped along by America’s rapidly accelerating anxiety over China.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles takeaway lesson from the Ausuk announcement is that Europeans have to have a stronger military capacity in order to share a more important part of the burden that represents the defence of the Western world…in the places where we cannot expect the U.S. intervene or the NATO intervene,” adding that “We have to share our part of responsibility, and we have to be able to act alone, if needed.” This is, simply, the logical direction of travel as Europe’s importance dwindles in Washington’s rear view mirror, and Europeans realise they will soon be forced to defend their own interests, whether or not they want to. As the European Commission’s Vice President, Maros Sefcovic noted, “I think that after Kabul, after Aukus, this was, I would say the natural conclusion, that we need to focus more on the strategic autonomy,” and future summits on the question loom.

Macron’s oft-stated ambivalence over NATO is matched by a generalised European indifference or even hostility to the very idea of a Cold War with distant China. Through no particular fault of either party, the transatlantic marriage between America and Europe is  growing cool as each partner pursues their own divergent interests; and as they drift apart, both Brexit and Aukus have played a minor but nevertheless real role in widening the gulf between them. As Britain commits itself to following America’s destiny on the high seas, no doubt de Gaulle would have welcomed these final parting gifts of Anglo-Saxon diplomacy.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

All of this is quite correct and logical, but the essay leaves unmentioned all the practical hurdles to putting together any kind of coherent security/defence policy for the EU. The Transatlanticists in the EU are still hefty enough to water down or obstruct any French plans. What we’re in for in Europe is endless discussions about strategic autonomy which go on forever without yielding any consensus or concrete result. Just like the refugee crisis: how long have we been waiting for that much-vaunted “European solution”? 6 years and counting.
The difference between Europe and the Anglo-Saxon countries is ACTION. In 6 years, the US, UK, Australia and possibly others will be out “doing” in the world, while the Europeans will still be talking and philosophising and issuing nice sounding communiquĂ©s…but emphatically NOT “doing”.
Seen in that light, Biden’s sorry-not-sorry “concession” to Macron was a “yes, go right ahead mate…but I’ll believe it when I see it”. If Europe does get its act together, America has one less burden. If it doesn’t, the US can just shrug its shoulders, feel safe in the knowledge that NATO has won the day, and say “well, don’t look at me!”

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Agreed Katharine. As I mentioned the other day – it’s business as usual for NATO really. The only reliable members have long continued to operate as an organisation, in spite of constantly being badmouthed on the wider political sphere, not least by the French.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

From all appearances the USA & Britain have not stopped the EU from developing an army but rather it seems a lack of urgency and the unwillingness of Europeans to do so. For too long, the Europeans have relied on NATO perhaps believing that they would always be taken care of without taking hold of their own agency. It’s been just too easy and very inexpensive to rely on the USA.

Last edited 2 years ago by Cathy Carron
Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

America got tired of the European deadbeats that didn’t carry their fair share of the defense load and instead lavished more social benefits on their citizens.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

You cut right through all the theorizing to the essential point, and that is as you say ACTION. The trail of EU failures to present joint action goes back to the Balkan War, and so one is permitted to express doubt that Macron will be able to extract anything more than lip service from members for a joint EU military force headed, of course, by France.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

It is perhaps the result of the many years I (an Englishwoman) have been living in continental Europe (and specifically the German-speaking area), during which time I have often been frustrated by the amount of talking and thinking about every eventuality that goes on before any project is commenced. My colleagues frequently criticised me for not thinking things through properly before cracking on, but at the end of the day, I think that success (whether private or professional, in business or in politics) is all about GETTING STUFF DONE. Rolling your sleeves up, kicking on, finding solutions and dealing with the problems that inevitably crop up as they happen rather than try and think about them all beforehand. I have just come to the conclusion that this is a cultural thing – those of an Anglo-Saxon mentality are DOERS rather than THINKERS.
I think that Macron is a thinker AND a doer, so he’s going to be extremely frustrated that he’s pinned his hopes for glory on the ultimate “talk about things for 100 years before doing anything” behemoth that is the EU.

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Don’t discount the power a love of bureaucracy and committee meetings can bring to bear on any subject you can name.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

They are both time-honoured ways of professionalising procrastination and/or looking fantastically busy while doing…not much.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

The EU spends 1.2% of GDP on defense while the US spends 3.5%. How does the EU become an equal defense/strategic partner unless it spends vastly more money on armaments? An inconceivable outcome. Ari is kidding himself.

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
2 years ago
Reply to  David McDowell

There will never be a European army able to project European influence. Europe will fail to finance it properly, as a lot will simply see it as a French ego trip. Yes they’ll pay lip service to it, but who is going to pay to fill all the capability gaps, resulting from walking away from the US?

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  David McDowell

Not only do they spend much less than the USA, they have a wide spectrum of ideas. Just think of the variety in history, size, and geography of, say, Ireland, Latvia, Germany, Poland, Greece, to name but a few. How can anyone create armed forces to rival the USA out of 27 such countries?
I suspect that some of these countries would be very keen for juicy defence contracts, and EU officials are always looking for opportunities to create yet more EU officials, and the grand buildings in which to house them.

Harry Child
Harry Child
2 years ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

The latest estimates of funding for NATO show Greece at the top, followed by the USA, Croatia & the UK. Those below the 2% agreed level -Germany 1.53% of GDP, Luxembourg 0.57% of GDP , Belgium (1.12%) and Spain (1.02%) .
It will be interesting to see how France will ensure that their new EU army is paid for by the richest nations in the block.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

These articles always assume that everything is about politics, about defence or future wars. With France that is just wrong.

De Gaulle’s problem was and Macron’s problem is about influence in the world and therefore about language. When the whole world speaks English, France is eliminated from international discussions. Their politicians can only befriend other politicians if they speak English. Formal meetings can be held with translators but informal meeting are more difficult.

So France wants to have cultural influence, to lead the world in some way. Myths are spread about French wines and French food but things like that are equilibrating in all countries of the world. Pre-lockdown Paris was full of Chinese tourists so the waiters and hoteliers suddenly discovered how to speak English. How can De Gaulle’s proud France ever lead in anything.

Surprisingly, the UK can lead in many countries because it can hold informal person-to-person chats in almost all countries of the world.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Which countries does the UK lead in? I’m interested to know…

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago

Good article Aris.
The French tantrums over AUKUS and persistent cattiness over many years illustrates why they are not taken as seriously on the international stage as they should be. Notwithstanding that the fact that an election is looming, and Macron et al want to appear tough, this sort of typically undiplomatic behaviour makes them look ridiculous and petulant.
In my experience the French are utterly deluded when it comes to their independence on military operations whether as part of NATO or not. In West Africa they have had to rely on RAF aviation and aircraft support to sustain themselves. Elsewhere, despite constantly mocking the UK for being subordinate to the US, they do their own thing, ignoring the fact that it is US (and UK) resources that have to come to their aid as soon as it inevitably goes wrong. The US military despised them – it is only because the US at higher levels wants to be seen to be cooperative that they put up with their antics.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Interesting you say the US military dispises the French. Have you got a link for that?

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
2 years ago

This is about France’s eternal dream to make the eU into a greater France. Practically, that means Germany paying for a European defence the Germans don’t want. Nor the Dutch. Nor the Poles. Let alone the others. Typically, in EU fashion, security issues have been discussed in terms of institutions. But the security policies of each NATO member are intensely national. Take Finland, Greece, or Italy. Russia, Turkey and Germany are the latter three’s priority concerns.
The idiocy of French foreign policy, in complicity with UK Remainers, is to seek to punish and reverse Brexit, rather than to recognise that a European alliance system has to be compatible with its peoples’ preferences. Maastricht and Lisbon went way and beyond what was acceptable to the UK. In other words, France and Germany treated the UK with contempt, with the support of Remainers. No wonder they lost 2016. They broke the one law Jean Monnet told Heath should never be broken: never override the national interests of one of the big member states.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jonathan Story
Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

If the EU is to become federal and effectively be a nation, the big States are going to have to get used to being f56ked off at the high port by smaller states…just as in the US, the Electoral College stops bigger nations alone from deciding who is going to POTUS.

Incidentally, a while back Germany was talking about getting more bang per Euro WRT defence spending. One cheap way of doing that is N-weapons (much cheaper than large conventional forces) and German politicians and officers seriously looked and quiely seem to still be examining the routes to Germany joining the Nuclear Club.

And that leaves aside the Bundeswehr integrating elements of the Hungarian forces into German led battlegroups. Nothing too dramatic but unthinkable even a few years ago.

Luke I
Luke I
2 years ago

Good description of the divergence. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries view China as a threat to all its neighbours, and to global democracies more broadly. Continental European powers view China as a continuing source of wealth and investment.
It still seems odd how much Macron throwed a tantrum about being left out of a defensive pact with Australia and the US. Does anyone believe for a second that the French would actually commit resources to defending these countries in the event of a Chinese attack? They couldn’t even stomach remaining in NATO.
I think M. Macron’s desire is to just be part of the club. Aukus does not hold values Macron would ascribe to, so the EU must be made into a club worthy of having him as a member. With more geopolitical agency, a French-led EU could more ‘actively’ decide to cash in on Energy and Trade relations with Russia and China; whilst Aukus, the quad, and the rest fight to preserve the free world.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
2 years ago
Reply to  Luke I

Australia and the US are fighting over trade WRT China. Hammer the EU by all means for wanting closer trade links with China but don’t forget the US and Australia are also wanting to trade more with China.

I’m sure you recall, for example, DJT being cheered to the skies by US farmers when he secured Chinese agreements that China would significantly increase the amount of US produce it bought.

George Knight
George Knight
2 years ago

The French political class truly feel that they are superior to others, whether it be their language, their food, their wine, etc, and that their destiny is to be an influential player on the world stage. However, I suspect that language and history are against them. Firstly language, to reach 80% of the world’s population it is necessary to speak English, Chinese and Spanish. French might help deciphering one of their wine labels, but not much more. Secondly history, they suffered in the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War and the Second World War and then had Vietnam and Algeria. This is not the most glittering platform for a major military force.
De Gaulle talked a good talk, as have so many leaders prior to Macron but can they walk the talk? I do not think so.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago

Germany is notably absent from this analysis. Otherwise, a very fine essay.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

In line with NATO doctrine, Germany has the role of fighting a defensive war in Europe and the Bundeswehr has been set up for that.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

I’m sure the Poles and other Eastern Europeans are delighted at the split between the EU and the US. They’re desperate to remove themselves from under the umbrella of US military protection and to throw themselves at the mercy of the Russians.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Meanwhile Germany cultivates trade relations with Russia for energy that betray the security of eastern EU countries, and may result in a proper war between the Ukraine and Russia. Where will the EU military be in that scenario?

David Batlle
David Batlle
2 years ago

Reads like a massive cope. Like a jilted woman slandering the man who dumped her.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Thanks for the history lesson!
That 1945 “colossal Atlantic community under American dependence and direction” has disappeared from our 21st-century horizon. Now it seems appropriate that Monsieur Macron should step up to update Gen. deGaulle’s pivotal role in the postwar world.
Somebody on the Continent ought to have stepped up, by now, to the challenge. . . better Macron than any other Euro leader . . . Orban, for instance.
Bravo and Cheerio! We yanks are pleased and proud to have ye British forebears as our primary partners.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

US GDP is 7.5 times that of Britain or France, and only China is comparable. The military disparity is even greater. So the idea that either Britain or France has ultimate strategic autonomy is a complete fantasy. The UK is more realistic in recognising this undeniable fact, though it is perhaps a lot easier for Britain, as it shares a common language and common cultural roots with the US (though at the same time being a very different society in many ways).

The EU likes a formulaic idea of its own autonomous defence force, but even more important than economic and military strength is the political will to build up such forces. So far, despite a lot of hot air, with the exception of France and some of the Eastern EU nations (who with Russia actually have someone to actively fear), there has been none. It is difficult to see why underspending on NATO commitments is suddenly going to be reversed just because a European Army becomes the lead supranational defence organisation.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher