US–UK–France relations amid the Russia–Ukraine war: a new strategic alignment?

By Wyn Rees and Ruike, International Affairs, Volume 100, Issue 3, May 2024, Pages 1249–1261, https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiae075

 

Abstract

 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the recognition of the rising challenge from China have resulted in a closer alignment of American, British and French strategic interests. This policy paper explores how the strategic relationship between the United States, the United Kingdom and France has evolved amid this changed threat environment.

- The Russia–Ukraine war exposed the limitations of France's policy of ‘strategic autonomy’ and reasserted the importance of an American role in European security. The war has re-focused attention upon the Lancaster House framework in which the UK and France have the potential to enhance their contribution to European defence.

- The UK still regards its ‘special relationship’ with the US as being of critical importance to its foreign policy. But the UK's diminishing military power makes it a less valuable ally to the US whose attention is increasingly upon the Indo-Pacific region.

- The paper argues that the alignment between the three countries has been closer over the Russian war in Ukraine compared to attitudes towards China, where tensions between France and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ persist.

- France has been unwilling to adopt the American approach towards China and has stuck to its vision of a multipolar world. The AUKUS deal arranged between the US, UK and Australia had the effect of alienating France.

- The policy paper contends that the temporary alignment between US, UK and French interests will erode as long-standing conflicts of interest re-emerge. In particular, the unpredictability of US leadership will damage the trilateral relationship if Donald Trump regains the presidency in November 2024.


The three leading countries in transatlantic security, the United States, France and the United Kingdom, have a triangular relationship that eludes easy analysis. These are the key countries within the West that possess the ability to provide politico-security leadership. Yet the interplay between the US, France and the UK has historically oscillated between camaraderie and mistrust. The ways in which the three countries have defined their strategic interests have resulted in policy frictions and prevented them from pursuing mutually supportive goals.

Since 1949, ‘Atlanticism’ has been the dominant security framework for Europe. The UK has regarded the US as Europe's indispensable guarantor, and it has cultivated a ‘special relationship’ with the US. By contrast, France, while recognizing the necessity of American defence guarantees, has often acted as ‘a dangerous heretic’ in relation to aspects of transatlantic policy.1 This dynamic reflects the intricate and sometimes conflicting nature of the security relationships among these three nations.

Within the trilateral relationship, the strongest linkage is between the US and the UK, while the weakest is between the UK and France. There are natural synergies between the UK and France, as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, as nuclear powers and as major military actors in Europe. Yet the intimacy of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ relationship, particularly in the nuclear and intelligence domains, has imposed constraints on tripartite cooperation, due to a sense of exclusion on the part of France.2 A recent example of this is France's ‘blindsiding’ by the US and the UK in concluding the AUKUS security partnership with Australia in September 2021.3

Patterns of Anglo-French cooperation have emerged, but they have tended to be driven by the economic expediency of achieving savings in defence spending. When confronted with a choice of whether to side with the US or its European allies, such as over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the UK has prioritized its relationship with the US. The nature of Anglo-American cooperation, often characterized by scepticism towards European integration, has played a significant role in shaping British Euroscepticism. While the US has been broadly supportive of the European Union, its concerns about the potential adverse effects of deepened European integration on American security predominance on the continent encouraged the UK's role as an ‘awkward partner’4 within the EU. This dynamic paved the way for Brexit.5

The preceding two decades witnessed profound tensions in the trilateral relationship. These strains were primarily driven by the global ‘war on terror’ and the contentious US-led war against Iraq. China emerged as an additional source of stress, especially as the US perceived it as a strategic challenge earlier than its European allies. This difference in threat assessment led the UK and France to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in March 2015, despite US opposition. The UK's 2016 referendum resulted in its departure from the EU in 2020, and France, as the champion of European defence, was widely expected to distance itself from the UK. Meanwhile, the administration of Donald Trump in the US exacerbated transatlantic disunity and appeared to presage a new era of diverging strategic interests between the US, the UK and France.

However, a paradox of the more intense contemporary threat environment facing the three powers is that it has narrowed their strategic differences. The outbreak of the Russia–Ukraine war in February 2022 has complemented a converging perception among them of the risks posed by China, which is ‘increasingly occupying a position as a pole’.6 The administration of Joe Biden, committed to transatlantic cooperation, has been eager to harness the support of France as the leading military power within the EU. It has also sought to encourage closer Anglo-French relations.7 This shift reflects a determination to confront the challenge presented by both China and Russia to the western-led international order.

This policy paper explores how the challenges posed by Russia and China have brought the interests of the US, the UK and France closer together. The historical contradictions between Atlanticism and Europeanism have been temporarily ameliorated. But the alignment of interests may be less comprehensive than first thought. The paper goes on to question how long any strategic realignment might last, as competing interests between the three powers reassert themselves.


The US–UK–France trilateral relationship

 

The trilateral relationship between the US, the UK and France has a complex history. All three are founding members of NATO: France withdrew from the alliance's integrated military structure in 1966, only to reintegrate in 2009. The UK and France were both members of the EU, whose defence structure crystallized in 1999, although the UK left in 2020. All three countries have bilateral relationships with each other that nest within their broader multilateral relations. This intricate web of alliances and partnerships reflects the multifaceted nature of their diplomatic and security ties.

Countries have looked to the US for leadership, as the pre-eminent power within the western alliance. First, the West has expected the US to champion the liberal international order, with its attendant values of democratic governance, the rule of law and adherence to human rights. NATO has represented a pillar of that liberal order.8 Second, western states have expected the US to pursue multilateralism, rather than unilateralism, particularly in matters involving the national interests of its allies. This multilateralism has entailed a willingness to accept a process of consultation, as well as the constraints placed by international institutions on America's unrivalled power. Third, they have expected the US to contribute the majority of resources in addressing common challenges.

The UK and France have chosen ‘diametrically opposed courses’9 with respect to US leadership. UK policy has advocated Atlanticism and a willingness to depend on the US. France has been inclined to distance itself from the US, prioritizing strategic autonomy. Indeed, France promoted European integration, and a leading role for itself, as a pole of political, economic and military power rivalling that represented by the US.

As the relative power of the UK and France diminished during the Cold War, the UK used its ‘special relationship’ with the US to enable it to punch above its weight. In contrast, France stuck to its idea of ‘la grandeur’ to assert an independent great power role.10 French leaders since the time of President Charles de Gaulle have reduced foreign policy and defence dependence on the US.11 As France's then-foreign minister Hubert Védrine argued in 1998, France and the US were ‘friends, allies, but not aligned [amis, alliés, mais pas alignés]. We … reject unilateralism’.12

Unlike the UK, France was uneasy living under the shadow of American hegemony and attempted to position itself equidistant between the US and the former Soviet Union, searching for a third way (‘la troisième voie’).13 It refused to integrate its nuclear deterrent within NATO and subsume its forces under US command.14 French leaders treated the EU as the ‘reincarnation’ of France and envisaged a multipolar world.15 They have believed that NATO, as an expression of US influence, should focus on threats to the Euro-Atlantic zone and not attempt to be the world's policeman.16

The twin challenges of Russia's war in Ukraine and the rise of China have been catalysts in realigning the interests of the US, the UK and France. The resulting perceptions of insecurity have compelled the three to draw closer together. Each country has intensified its cooperation with the other two. France, in a notable shift, has increasingly embraced Atlanticism. The UK has enhanced its relationships with France and other European neighbours, reversing its post-Brexit trajectory. The following sections unpack the complexities and dynamics at play and seek to shed light on their strategic interactions.


For the rest of the article, visit: https://academic.oup.com/ia/article/100/3/1249/7651901

 

 

 

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