The End of the Affair: The EU and UK have very different foreign policy destinies
As the year draws to an end, City A.M. is looking back at the columns that illuminated the world around us.
In The End of the Affair (1951), Graham Greene — to my mind the most underrated novelist of the twentieth century — perfectly encapsulates the chaotic feelings lying behind romantic breakup and emotional calamity.
“Insecurity,” Greene writes, “is the worst sense that lovers feel: sometimes the most humdrum desireless marriage seems better.”
For the EU and the UK, Greene’s prescient description of the fear of letting go is where we find both protagonists at this seminal moment, as we stand on the eve of Brexit.
No longer tethered together in joyless, humdrum tandem, the two great powers must now navigate the dizzying fear that comes with freedom from one another, as our new era fully dawns.
As I have said before in these pages, we are now living in a new age of loose bipolarity, where there are clearly two superpowers — the US and China — vying for global dominance.
However, just beneath them in terms of importance, the great powers — such as the Anglosphere countries (of which the UK is a major player), the EU, India, Japan, and Russia — all have extensive room to manoeuvre, and to craft independent foreign policies of their own.
The choice for the first four is one of either neutralism in the face of the Sino-American Cold War, or tilting towards Washington. For Russia, it is the reverse: neutralism or alliance in one form or another with Beijing.
As such, America has the clear structural edge, with the chance to bring more powerful allies onside to tilt the superpower contest in its favour. At first glance, it would appear that in the new Wilsonian President Biden, and his clarion call for renewing alliance-building, the man and the strategic moment are met.
But there is another, less positive, way to look at the coming foreign policy of the Biden White House.
Let us briefly look at the EU and the UK (and Anglosphere countries) from Biden’s eyes. His first port of call will be Europe, both by inclination and in his belief that Donald Trump has done serious damage to US relations there. But, paradoxically, in caring far more about the EU than Trump ever did, it is Biden who is likely to initiate a serious transatlantic crisis.
Briefly imagine Biden’s first conversation with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of Europe’s most powerful single state. It will go something like this:
“Angela, I am so glad to be working with you, as we share common values, based on multilateralism, rule of law, the value of alliances, and human rights. As such, and now that the breach in transatlantic relations can be repaired, there is much for us to do together.
“I ask you to quickly up your defence spending to the two per cent agreed to by Nato (Berlin managed 1.3 per cent in 2019), to stop the vast new Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Germany and Russia (given Moscow’s expansionistic record and brutal efforts to murder opposition leader Alexei Navalny), and to take the strategic lead in North Africa and the Balkans as we pivot to Asia, joining us in a broad anti-Chinese alliance, the first step of which involves you renouncing the use of Huawei in Germany’s 5G network.”
In response, Mrs Merkel will embarrassedly look at her shoes and do nothing. We will then have the genuine transatlantic crisis that has been forestalled by years of blaming the odious Donald Trump for deeper, more structural fissures that have built up over time on both sides of the Atlantic.
For the simple fact is that, between increasing German pacifism and French Gaullism, the EU is comfortably embracing a more neutralist posture in the new era.
Biden’s well-meaning efforts to jumpstart the relationship will actually have the opposite effect. Because he cares about the EU alliance, he will ask practical policy things of it. Europe will then refuse him, and the schism will be made clear to all.
On the other hand, the new White House, given its Wilsonian Europe-first blinders, will make the mirror opposite mistake with the Anglosphere. It will neglect an alliance that has already (far more than the EU) nailed its colours to the pro-American mast, collectively seeing China as the common enemy.
Wilsonians — Barack Obama first among them, who famously said of Brexit that the UK would be “at the back of the queue” in terms of any successive trade deals, so little did he want the UK to break away from Brussels — have increasingly seen the Anglosphere and EU alliances in zero-sum terms: to favour one is to disparage the other. It is easy to guess which side Biden feels more ideologically comfortable with.
This is a geostrategic tragedy in the making. Unlike the increasingly pacifist and self-involved EU, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK (as well as honorary members India and Japan) have all come to see China as the common enemy, just as America does — be it because of Beijing’s de facto abrogation of the Sino-UK deal over Hong Kong, its aggression in the Himalayas, or its naval buildup in the South China and East China Seas.
Indeed, all the Anglosphere countries have already agreed to phase out Huawei 5G involvement from their telecoms systems, in an effort to technologically disengage from Beijing. While Biden futilely tries to woo the EU, his simultaneous neglect of an already-working anti-Chinese alliance may amount to an even larger strategic blunder.
Still, Americans tend to talk like hippies but act like gangsters. Employing US political culture’s endless capacity for pragmatism and ruthless self-correction — to go with what works — it remains likely that Biden (or whoever comes next) will see the disastrous initial results of this EU-first blunder and make the inevitable course correction.
Look then for the US-Anglosphere alliance to emerge as the chief counter to Chinese expansionism, even as the EU slides into further comfortable neutralist decline.
With the end of the affair, the strategic futures of the UK-EU couple could not be more dramatically different.
Main image credit: Getty