In 2021, the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia announced the ‘AUKUS’ trilateral security pact. Assessments of AUKUS have tended to focus on the nature of the advanced military technology that will be shared (cyber, AI, quantum, hypersonic, and of course, nuclear-powered submarines).
Important as this is, it misses four key points that will underpin the coalition’s future efforts to shape the world order:
- AUKUS aims to contain China and defend the free world
AUKUS represents the drawing of lines in the battle to influence the ‘Indo-Pacific’. This term is a shibboleth: code for entry to a club of democracies eager to halt Chinese belligerence. Expressly, AUKUS has been set up to constrain China’s security ambitions, which have increased since 2008. More broadly, AUKUS seeks to maintain and defend a maritime capitalist system – starting with a free and open Pacific – premised on the rules and norms of liberal world order.
To be clear: AUKUS is designed to win this contest, with the potential spoils no less than the maintenance of a global order built in the alliance’s own image. In this effort, AUKUS caps the UK’s Indo-Pacific Tilt and quest to forge itself as ‘Global Britain’, Obama-Biden efforts to ‘pivot to Asia’, and longstanding Australian security concerns around China. China is correct to lament the ‘Cold War mentality’ it sees as underpinning the alliance because AUKUS does indeed indicate preparations to win in an increasingly bi- or multipolar system by pro-actively recruiting states uneasy about the implications of rising powers. As AUKUS develops, its networks and remit will inevitably grow, but this growth will be focused on a single objective: contain China, and defend the free world.
- AUKUS is old, unique, and poorly understood, despite it’s highly consequential future
AUKUS is simultaneously a new and very old unit of analysis, and its history will shape its future. The UK’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee has noted the nostalgia of the alliance and how it feels ‘old fashioned’. It is, and intentionally so. Efforts to confront China are the outcome and continuation of entwined political, cultural, and military histories. The impulse to sculpt the geopolitics of the twenty-first century extends through the shared experiences of an existential twentieth and the ‘outbreak of peace’ at the end of the nineteenth. As recurrent ‘brothers in arms’, the perceived naturalness of the alliance is frequently taken for granted.
This is compounded by its sui generis qualities which render standard (quantitative approaches) to coalition formation difficult and often partial (due to the difficulties of identifying, isolating, and modelling complex and intertwined cultural variables). It is incomplete and misleading to account for AUKUS’ existence through rational calculations of (future) power balancing alone because AUKUS is a longstanding, culturally underpinned, and socially constructed coalition. Interest premised explanations cannot account for AUKUS’ inclusions or exclusions; these three states follow each other to war even when conflict is not in the national interest. Nor is it a coalition we can model and explain through contemporary interacting variables; this is a highly nuanced and historically constituted community. To date, we lack an appropriate ontological understanding of AUKUS – as an alliance, a military coalition, a security community, a transnational political space, a polis, or something else – as well as its conceptual underpinnings.
- AUKUS divides the ‘old Anglosphere coalition’ from Five Eyes
The Anglosphere has always demonstrated a fading gradation. Today, a propensity to fight is what splits Five Eyes into two tiers. New Zealand and Canada remain close to the heart of the Anglosphere, but outside of those ‘warrior states’ passing Blair’s ‘doctrine of international community’ test – being prepared to fight for liberal values. The unusually borne out two-step process of Anglo-Saxon colonial and post-colonial relations experienced by Canada and New Zealand has dampened the militarism and imperialism that remains evident within the AUKUS states.
They are the victims (as well as the victors) of the liberal imperialism of the UK and, second, the USA and Australia, generating a very different historical trajectory and degree of comfort with imperial wars. This has led to a heightened criticality, made possible by the (perhaps taken for granted) geopolitical security afforded by virtue of having large, powerful, and culturally similar liberal imperialist neighbours.
- AUKUS is built on racialized warfare, necessitating critique but not disbandment
AUKUS is co-constituted by its taste and talent for imperial warfare. The glue that binds is formed in significant part through repeated coalition bloodshed. Often, these wars are fought against racialized Others. It is vital to dampen perceptions of a contemporary era constituting a rational and broadly realist environment – of great power competition, increasingly unconstrained by liberal (institutional) limits. The current era remains premised upon its historical legacies, with historical narratives of racialized violence at its heart. Important practitioner reflection and public debate are needed: how can a tainted coalition’s past be reconciled with the need to prepare for future geopolitical challenges? The aim here, then, is to foster debate on the (troubling) foundations of the alliance, such that AUKUS can be critiqued and held to account, without necessarily calling for it to be disbanded, given the geopolitical challenges that have inspired its formation.
The hope is that previous mistakes can be learned from in rising to meet these new global security challenges. The aim is that AUKUS can use force projection to prevent conflict. This requires careful diplomacy and introspection alongside advanced military capabilities.
This blog draws on Prof Holland’s book Selling War and Peace, Published by Cambridge University Press (2021)