The submarine crisis and the sea of doubts

Ghassan Charbel

Published: Updated:

Vladimir Putin is entitled to breathe a sigh of relief. Any fissure in the US-led global alliance contents him. His contentment is doubled this time with Russia outside the eye of the storm, for this novel crisis clearly showed that America is intensely preoccupied with facing the Chinese challenge.

This might not be the first time that discord between the US and its allies comes under the spotlight, but this new crisis comes in a new setting related to the US and its role as leader of the world.

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In describing its discontent with the tripartite military alliance that cost it “the deal of the century” with Australia, France used harsh terms to express the deep doubts underlying the calm surface of relations. Paris believed the Joe Biden term would not be one to pull out the kind of surprises France might have feared under his predecessor. As such, Paris spoke of “treason,” “a stab in the back,” “selfishness,” and “opportunism” as it recalled its ambassadors in the US and Australia for consultations. Paris accused Canberra of breaching the submarine deal, but it also considered that the US offering encouraged this treason. It also did not forget to decry UK opportunism.

The submarine crisis has revealed the doubtful times in which the Western world is living. During the age of the Two Camps, things were much clearer. It was possible to anticipate risks and reactions, and there was a firm belief that a penetration of lines of contact would be synonymous with risking a new global, deadly battle. This mutual fear helped prevent major ventures, and any penetration remained restricted to marginal areas of the world. For instance, the Soviet Union did not try to upend the post-WWII reality established in Europe, focusing instead on running those playgrounds it considered to be under its umbrella and in which it is allowed to intervene, in a sense. The Red Army steered away from the lines of contact. There was a feeling that the US would not hesitate to defend Western Europe should the latter face an imminent danger. Much like the feeling that prevailed in Western Europe that the NATO umbrella provides protection, the other half of the continent felt that the Warsaw Pact would not prejudice the safety of its member states.

Things changed after the fall of the USSR. The world watched as an entire empire crumbled along with its arsenal and model without a single shot being fired. Granted, the US victory was huge, but it plunged many American minds into scenarios of an “American century” and dreams of a world that resembles the victor.

At the beginning of the 21st century, terrorist organizations with no fixed address stormed the global stage. Their only mission: setting America ablaze. The 9/11 attacks pushed the victorious US to tough trials, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both countries, the US seemed to be a superpower that can topple a hostile regime by drowning it in a sea of fire, leveraging its huge technological capacities that set it apart from its targets. In both countries, though, the limits of US power were drawn clearly, as the world watched US troops withdrawing from Iraq, as if leaving it – intentionally or unintentionally – in the hands of Iran; and more recently from Afghanistan, leaving it in the hands of the Taliban.

The last few years fomented the growing doubts in the Old Continent, and it was not always due to America’s mistakes in running the world. Sometimes, it was about doubts in America’s desire to carry on with this leadership and its keenness toward its alliances and allies. In the last few decades, many American officials have clearly spoken of the Old Continent’s inability to secure a place for itself among the great powers. As Putin’s Russia embarked on a quest to redeem as much of the Soviet Union’s legacy as possible, and as Mao’s heirs were busy penetrating countries across the world with infrastructure and loans, the European block was struggling to speak with a unified voice on the affairs of the continent and the world. The salt in the wound was Britain jumping off the European ship, eyeing a more intimate and special relation with the US and the leverage it would acquire from such an alliance that primarily targets China’s expansion.

The submarine crisis comes amid an era of aggravated European doubts. Has Europe’s weight diminished after the UK left the multilingual club? What happens to the German-French wagon of the EU train now, with Angela Merkel stepping down and Emmanuel Macron preparing for a presidential election? If Europe could not adopt a unified approach to dealing with Vladimir Putin as a rival, partner, or competitor; will it be able to tackle China’s rise with unified terms?

France’s crisis with the tripartite US-Australian-British alliance reveals the lack of a calm, fixed, reassuring leadership of this world that the US leads – at least supposedly. In this alliance, the US has no contender for the first place, and European ambition would never get this far in the first place. However, countries like France and Germany can aspire to be a partner – modest as this partnership may be – in the drawing of policies, especially if they will demand that responsibilities be shouldered and consequences be accounted for.

Taking the path of no return with the other parties in this crisis is not in France’s interest. Similarly, destabilized relations with Paris are not in America’s interest. As such, this crisis is governed by each party’s need to maintain relations with the other once amends have been made and tensions have been defused. What’s certain is that the submarine crisis goes to show how difficult it is to run a world where the race for markets, power, and control is increasingly heated. It will not be easy for the US to arrange a wide alignment on the basis that China is the new “evil empire,” as the submarine crisis revealed that a sea of doubts separates the US and several of its allies, fronted by France.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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