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AUKUS: A Potential Boon for Central and Eastern Europe? by Tate Sanders

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AUKUS: A Potential Boon for Central and Eastern Europe?

Although most political analysts are focused on the current war in Ukraine, there are still other important political alliances and moves that are shaping, forming, reforming, and transforming. It is important to note that while Russian troops are fighting throughout Ukraine, China is still gathering strength and is looking more and more like an upcoming superpower. The Trump administration’s laser focus on the communist nation was a wakeup call to the West, and although recent elections and political events have changed priorities, there has not been a total shift away from countering China’s rise. Last year’s recent agreement concluded between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia (AUKUS), is one such example.

The reactions which followed the announcement of the AUKUS agreement late last summer were noteworthy if for no other reason than to see the French respond as offended but arrogant, and the still relatively new Biden administration possibly fumbling yet another foreign policy manoeuvre. However, perhaps unnoticed or at least underrated, was the possibility that this was a strange victory, not only for AUKUS members, but also for another region, usually chastised by the world’s political elite: Central and Eastern Europe.

The AUKUS agreement was very modest in its goals and intent

How could this be? Before getting to that, a brief review: the AUKUS agreement, formed officially by the US, the UK, and Australia late last summer, was very modest in its goals and intent. Hoping to help the Royal Australian Navy upgrade their nuclear submarines, the deal also includes, ‘Our [AUKUS] joint capabilities and interoperability […] on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities’.[1] In short, it is the further strengthening of the English-speaking countries, and a power move aimed directly opposed to the People’s Republic of China.

Remaining focused on Europe, this deal sent shockwaves through the continental European establishment. After a supposed four years of inept, dangerous, and unpredictable foreign policy during the Trump presidency, the return to Democrat leadership should have ushered in the proverbial ‘A-Team’ after their prior hiatus. Believing that the Biden administration’s ‘America is Back’ mantra was code for revival of the pre-Trump era of consistent American kowtowing to the powers that be, namely Paris and Berlin, France was instead both surprised and left out. It was their submarines which had been meant to become part of the Australian Navy,[2] but this plan was shelved when AUKUS became reality.

Then came the pushback. France recalled its ambassador from Washington, for the first time since Louis XVI’s recognition of the United States some 243 years ago. The French foreign minister called it a ‘stab in the back,’ and the economic minister indirectly summoned the now ageing refrain of insinuating the need for the formation of even greater strategic autonomy among European forces,[3] outside of American control or influence (this does answer the question though, of why there is a  need for another organization or power centre, when NATO, mainly the US, keeps Europe relatively peaceful). Add to this the debacle surrounding the withdrawal from Afghanistan, including the abrupt notice given to NATO allies pre-withdrawal, the prior ending of sanctions for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which threatens European energy security, and the disparagement of leaders in allied European countries as thugs and authoritarian: quite a record in less than a year. All this, together with a general sense of US weakness, has damaged America’s reputation even more than Biden’s predecessor’s supposed mistakes and alleged lack of proper temperament.

After the leaders of America and France had their public moment to mend fences,[4] the interesting question posed earlier arises once more: how does this benefit Central and Eastern Europe? At first glance, other than the fact that this region is part of the EU and NATO, there seems to be no major why the AUKUS situation might benefit countries such as Poland and Hungary. Poland is primarily focused on ground issues, namely Russia, and Hungary is landlocked, with no pressing concern for issues of naval significance. The only other thing all these countries had to offer was their sops to French pride, but they were otherwise nonplussed, realizing this was not a crisis of existential proportions.[5]

This recent trilateral agreement could spell indirect benefits for those on the Eastern side of the intra-European squabbling

Yet, with the current internal divisions wracking Europe, particularly the East–West divide (e.g., immigration, national sovereignty, etc.), this recent trilateral agreement could spell indirect benefits for those on the Eastern side of the intra-European squabbling. First, as noted earlier, AUKUS is certainly a piece of strategic positioning against China. While everyone in the West should welcome plans to counter China’s aggression and subversive activities, this continuing and visible shift towards the Pacific provides Central and Eastern Europe some breathing room from a less hospitable and forgiving Biden administration than was the case under the Trump administration. Despite the former’s insults and opposition to the region’s stances on issues such as foreign migration, this withdrawal of excess scrutiny could prove helpful in the near future, giving a sort of pause to any meaningful reproach. This does not mean that this scrutiny could not return, and there could be more deeply-felt negative consequences in the region due to the aftermath of the US 2020 election, but for now, events, both mentioned and not, are driving American foreign policy in different directions.

Second, more importantly, this was a deliberate, if ill-timed and ill-prepared, repudiation of the notion that France should be one of the overarching factors always dominating American, and for that matter, world affairs. It is well known that the EU is run by the Paris–Berlin axis, and for France (and Germany) to feel as though they are big players in the high stakes game of international poker, a submissive and weak US foreign policy is a vital necessity. By passing up France, the US has somewhat reoriented towards the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ nations,[6] and slightly reasserted American power as tantamount to world security, not entirely subject to the whims of continental Europe. Central and Eastern Europe can take some satisfaction in this, even if these countries cannot impress upon Brussels that national interests are still an acceptable national goal.

While the Biden administration lacks the verve and toughness of the previous administration, this rekindled friendship tells the world America has the right, and apparently the rediscovered ability, to change foreign policy decisions and work towards its own national interest. This final positive for nations such as Poland and Hungary should be taken as a small but good omen, given their recent struggles with the European Commission on issues of sovereignty. Though these countries do not have the size and influence of the United States, they can look right back at Washington if the ire of the Biden administration returns its heavy gaze on Central and Eastern Europe, after the war of course, and claim hypocrisy if national sovereignty issues are brought up in a negative context from across the Atlantic. Now that the ‘Build Back Better’ Democrat leadership has more severely damaged the transatlantic relationship—in real terms, not hurt feelings and tweet storms—for another security arrangement, this part of Europe can look at AUKUS as something to aid them in any future debate. They can say that if it is acceptable for the United States to pursue its national interests, even within an international context, then surely they can pursue their own policies and not feel scorched every time they make a seemingly contrarian move.

Beijing is the ultimate threat as AUKUS suggests, while Moscow is the vogue political discussion topic, in large part because of the recent Ukraine invasion

Relating to the overall posturing between Washington-Moscow-Beijing vis-à-vis Central and Eastern Europe, Beijing is the ultimate threat as AUKUS suggests, while Moscow is the vogue political discussion topic, in large part because of the recent Ukraine invasion. Though Central and Eastern Europe stand on the doorstep of Russia and the borderland countries of Belarus and Ukraine, they do not figure in the overall strategic calculus in Washington, outside of the current war. It would be easier, and perhaps preferable, for the foreign policy elite to just shame countries on the NATO periphery. This is how these countries could carry potential future utility for the left-leaning foreign policy establishment, unlike the last administration, which saw this region as an important long-term front in the return to great power rivalry and potential conflict, particularly with Russia.

In the current context however, this recent AUKUS deal should be considered a net positive for this region of Europe, despite the notable animosity from the Biden administration and the Western foreign policy establishment. Discretion and maintaining the current status quo may be the better parts of valour and a wiser mode of operation at this point time, and a quiet savouring of the respite as well. Also, the recent conflict in Ukraine will only fuel positive feelings towards Central and Eastern Europe for so long and will fade when the war is hopefully concluded soon, another variable to consider in the longer term for the region. The turn to no news may indeed actually be good news.

This does not mean though, that all is well concerning the relationship between Washington and the capitals of Central and Eastern Europe, especially the Visegrád Four (Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw, and Budapest). Also, once the DC establishment believes the domestic political situation has been weathered, the Ukraine war comes to some satisfactory conclusion, and there is signalling that just enough has been done to allay the American public’s concerns and/or fears regarding China, this region could be under a microscope once more. For the time being, though, both the Biden administration’s distractions and their (unexpected?) example of pursuing national interest should be small but encouraging signs. This region now has additional arrows in its quiver, knowing that the main powers of the EU are not quite on the pedestal Washington led them to believe, and American foreign policy has already severely contradicted itself during a very short-lived administration. While there are many other issues to face, such as the aftermath of Afghanistan, China’s increased hubris and Russia’s mounting energy and nuclear threats as the war in Ukraine continues, there is some reason to be grateful for now. A quiet confidence and a small sigh of relief should emanate from the Visegrád countries, after all, affairs with America could have been far worse for the region the past year and a half.


Tate Sanders is currently a Budapest Fellow with the Hungary Foundation, and is based at the National University of Public Service in Budapest. His area of focus is transatlantic relations with Central/Eastern Europe, with a sub-focus on energy policy. He holds a Master’s Degree in National Security and Statecraft Affairs from the Institute of World Politics, located in Washington, D.C.


[1] ‘Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS,’ White House (15 Sept.2021),https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/15/joint-leaders-statement-on-aukus/, accessed 20 Oct. 2021.

[2] ‘Experts react: The US, UK, and Australia struck a nuclear submarine deal. What does it mean?,’ The Atlantic Council (15 Sept. 2021), https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/experts-react-the-us-uk-and-australia-struck-a-nuclear-submarine-deal-what-does-it-mean, accessed 20 Oct. 2021.

[3] Roger Cohen & Michael D. Shear, ‘Furious Over Sub Deal, France Recalls Ambassadors to U.S. and Australia,’ Se(17 Sept. 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/17/world/europe/france-ambassador-recall-us-australia.html, accessed 21 Oct. 2021.

[4] ‘Biden: We were clumsy over France submarine row,’ BBC News (29 Oct. 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-59085806, accessed 30 Oct. 2021.

[5] Jamie Shea, ‘The AUKUS deal: a moment of truth for Europe and for security in the Indo-Pacific region,’ Friends of Europe (1 Oct. 2021), https://www.friendsofeurope.org/insights/the-aukus-deal-a-moment-of-truth-for-europe-and-for-security-in-the-indo-pacific-region/, accessed 21 Oct. 2021.

[6] When speaking off the record with some Central European intellectuals and politicians, they are never afraid to refer to the US, Britain and former Dominions of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada as the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries, rather than ‘English-speaking countries’ or even ‘Anglo countries’. A small example of this particular term in print is found in Polish News ‘The AUKUS Pact – what does it mean for the world and Poland? Jacek Stawiski’s column,’ (25 Sept. 2021), https://polishnews.co.uk/the-aukus-pact-what-does-it-mean-for-the-world-and-poland-jacek-stawiskis-column/, accessed 20 Oct. 2021.

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