The 2021 trilateral agreement among Australia, the UK, and the US for nuclear submarine and other military technology is part of an historic geopolitical realignment — Marks the emergence of a New Anglosphere
To know a nation’s geography is to know its foreign policy.
― Napoleon Bonaparte
The 2021 tripartite security agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia marks an historic inflection point, and the beginning of the end of the international system based on countries and capitals that has dominated the globe for nearly half a millennium. It is as consequential as the Treaty of Westphalia that concluded the Eighty Years War in 1648, ushering in the modern, country-based international order. It is far more consequential than the Treaty of Versailles that ended the bloodiest conflict in human history up to that time while inadvertently paving the way for far bloodier conflicts to come.
Make no mistake: The inelegantly-named AUKUS security agreement challenges the fundamental assumption that countries are the irreducible building blocks of international relations, and that national borders mark the extent of those blocks. In the process it begins the demolition of another fiction, the ideological conflict between so-called realism and liberalism. AUKUS embodies and modifies essential aspects of both traditions while fusing them to a new ecosystem of political as well as ethnic, linguistic, historical, and, to a lesser extent, geographic bonds. As we’ll see it also marks the birth of what may be called the New Anglosphere, which in turn is triggering realignments and cooperation among erstwhile rivals elsewhere in the world. History is back, and it’s pissed.
Modern international relations is premised on a mythology
Since the middle of the last millennium the global geopolitical system — to the extent the near-entropy of international relations can be called a “system” in the first place — has operated according to two foundational myths. The most essential is that there are these things called “countries,” defined by agreed-upon borders (or at least disputed borders where everyone agrees upon the general parameters of the dispute), coherent systems of laws, and relationships with other countries. The second is that international commerce is the salve that can end human conflict once and for all, since nations that trade with one another are loathe to wage war upon each other. These founding myths in turn begat the fables still taken for granted by the seven billion-odd residents of planet earth in 2021, notions that there are things like “international law,” “global human rights,” “free trade,” and even “laws of war.” It’s why Twentieth Century schoolchildren in the United States began their study of history by learning about classical “nation-states,” the precursors of modern countries. A mythology needs its origin story.
Accordingly, the balance of power largely has been a mathematical matter of amassing as many allied, satellite, and dependent countries in as many parts of the world as possible. It is a chess game played in hegemonic capitals according to rules so hopelessly malleable — like so many of the borders upon which the game hinges, about which more presently — that it led to humankind’s first two global wars, a third global cold war, and thousands of regional and local wars and conflicts, not to mention precursors in the Seven Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, and, arguably, the American Revolution. The Twentieth Century saw by far the highest body count to directly result from geopolitical myth-making, well over 100 million souls.
Scholars make careers exploring why this system, which theoretically balances the historic chaos of relations between peoples and modern neo-liberalism’s notion of enlightened self-interest, failed so often and so horrifically. But it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political science to appreciate that the (overwhelmingly Euro-centric, albeit with a strong if unintentional assist from China after the Opium Wars) mythology was hostile to the national, much less ethnic or tribal identities, customs, and histories that still comprised the essential organizing principals of the vast majority people on the planet, a hostility that was often intense bordering on evangelic.
Today we might see it as a conflict between “elites” and “the masses.” The elites preached enlightened self-interest from ivory towers in world capitals, particularly in the Bohemia of Central Europe, which was a sort of Greenwich Village writ large of the era, while on any given day the vast majority of the human race was still fighting over food scraps. The vanguard fanned across the world both literally and figuratively, armed with books and studies and theories, convinced in their heart of hearts that they could import the nation-state mythology and its scientific base all but unmodified from the campuses of Cambridge, Paris, and Munich and the cafés of Vienna and Prague to the frontiers of Africa, the mountains of the subcontinent, the jungles of Asia, and the steppes of the Americas. How foolish they were.
This land is your land, this land is my land
While the concept of nation-states, much less countries, arrived relatively recently in human history, the notion of individual human beings “owning” land and chattel to the exclusion of others is probably as old as the species. The story of the human race often boils down to a story of “my stuff versus your stuff.” As portrayed compellingly in the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, at some point three or four million years ago there was a moment when the first Australopithecus afarensis or Kenyanthropus platyops humanoid picked up the first rudimentary weapon and a synapse fired in its rudimentary neocortex: Mine. Even otherwise communal cultures, like the peaceful Tongva and Chumash peoples who lived in Southern California for at least five thousand years before the arrival of Europeans, recognized the concept (it is for this reason that indigenous people assert the United States was built on their land).
Tribalism is another evolutionary fact: Archeological discoveries have revealed conflicts between Neanderthal tribes in Europe some 80,000 years ago. Indigenous peoples in North America likewise organized into tribes that warred with each other over territorial, chattel, and other disputes. Indeed, territorialism and tribalism are innate. Territorial conflicts are intense in our closest relatives, chimpanzees. Male chimps routinely gang up to attack and kill males from rival bands, behavior scientists have described as strikingly (not to mention distressingly) similar to human warfare.
The story of the human race often boils down to a story of “my stuff versus your stuff.”
The occasional Code of Ur-Namu or Hammurabi aside, tribal, ancestral, and eventually religious bonds remained paramount in most human civilizations until relatively recently, and outside a handful of (relatively) stable cities and city-states the world was awash in blood. One of the biggest challenges confronting medieval European monarchs, for example, was how to prevent families and tribes from perpetuating and escalating historic blood feuds. The seeds of western democracy and modern nation-states were sown in an effort to replace that most fundamental of human transgressions, the taking of a life for a life, with compensation schemes for victims’ families called wergild. Ironically (or perhaps appropriately) Norse and Danish Vikings developed the concept. Similar evolutions were occurring around the same period elsewhere in the world: In China the Han Dynasty introduced the “Five Punishments” that the state endorsed for various crimes. In the 12th century the Japanese Samurai established the first rule of law in that country, and in India the highest castes made their first halting steps toward formalizing rights for the lower castes (albeit not the untouchables).
The results were not enlightened government or transnational peace. Organizing people into nations instead of tribes simply supplanted tribalism with nationalism. With the exception of those quasi-mystical things called “borders” it’s more or less been the same thing, just with bigger caliber weapons. Human beings can be agonizingly predictable.
History’s relentless practicality
At any given moment human beings may be prone to emotion, and in short spurts groups and mobs of them can inflict unimaginable harm on each other, but over a longer timeline history is a relentlessly practical schoolmaster. Cultures began to impose rule of law the way nuclear engineers introduce control rods into a reactor, to slow and control the otherwise entropy that would destroy the system from within. While some leaders acted out of genuine moral or religious conviction the vast majority simply wanted to maintain a modicum of order, not to mention preserve their own dynastic privilege. Turns out, an independent legal system, enforced by independent militias (later sheriff and police forces), are the best way to do that. Thus was a mythology born.
The 1648 European Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Eighty Years War among the kingdoms of Spain and France and the loosely allied principalities of Germany and western Poland drew the world’s first internationally recognized sovereign boundaries, and, more consequentially, established international legal norms by which they were enforced. Westphalia was fatally flawed from the start in that the new state boundaries were by necessity often arbitrary and poorly sited. For example, France obtained for the first time a firm western frontier in the Rhine Valley. Westphalia gave it sovereignty over Alsace, while confirming its possession of Metz, Toul, and Verdon (which it had in turn seized a century earlier). One hundred seventy years later some four million soldiers and half a million civilians would die in those very places in a war over those very borders.
[With Westphalia] France obtained for the first time a firm western frontier in the Rhine Valley…. One hundred seventy years later some four million soldiers and half a million civilians would die in those very places in a war over those very borders.
Nevertheless, over the next 250 years the nature of international relations underwent a profound transformation. Human civilization, not to mention human conflict, increasingly centered on questions of boundaries, state identity, and sovereignty. Religious, tribal, and even ethnic conflicts slowly retreated from the world scene – at least, they seemed to. All that was left was for the major European colonial powers to export the Enlightenment thought of Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Rosseau and the rest to their neatly carved-out possessions around the globe.
The ascendance of the evangelical technocracy
Export it they did, with a vengeance. By the time of Westphalia the Age of Exploration was more than a century under way. Geography was nearly as irrelevant to those European mapmakers as ethnicity and history. Colonial powers dispatched boundary commissions by the thousand to survey and confirm on the ground what already had been determined in those capitals thousands of miles away. Never mind that in many places the exact locations of borders were, and in many cases remain, known only to those bureaucrats and mapmakers, European colonial powers bisected, trisected, and quadrasected entire continents with lines that bore little if any resemblance to reality.
It was the apotheosis of the European technocrat. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a modern state bureaucracy and foreign service were as essential Great Power accoutrements as colonies and fleets of battleships. Indeed the latter begat the former. These bureaucracies, populated as they were by educated, theoretically impartial men (almost always, with an occasional woman) whose loyalties were to science and the state rather than the vagaries of human passions and emotions, were part of the brave vanguard who, with enough treasure expended in their general direction, would at last transcend those passions and emotions in an idealized world of scientific reason. The result would be a rational, scientific Utopia.
Ironically, modern European technocrats proved more orthodox, and their theories less adaptable, than the Arab, African, Oriental, and American cultures and empires they sought to supplant, or “civilize.” Muslim Turkish sultans and even Catholic Spanish conquistadors generally were more tolerant of other religions than humanistic European technocrats were of other political theories (which is not to say tolerant by modern standards). These days historians love nothing more than a good religious punching bag to explain the world’s woes, when in reality it was coldblooded secular politics that caused the most harm. The genocide of American indigenous peoples had far less to do with religious fanaticism than the political and territorial will to power (which, again, isn’t to suggest the expansion of the United States was not often viewed as nothing short of a holy crusade to individual settlers and the occasional President). Then again, throughout history religion has been conscripted into the service of secular ambitions far more often than vice versa.
This work was largely completed just in time for World War I to engulf many of those brand-new, make-believe countries, the violent death spasm of the very order the technocrats represented. Yet the global order on the morning an excitable young Australian Navy gunnery crew fired the first shots of the war at a German merchant ship SS Pfalz at 1245 hours, 5 August 1914, was still a hybrid. The vast majority of “countries” were under the rule of ancient, ossified European monarchies and empires. One of the great ironies of the Great War was that in destroying the last of old European order once and for all it perversely reinforced the notion that countries were not only real, but essential. After all, civilized peoples wouldn’t slaughter 20 million of each other over myths, would they? And so those mythological countries bestrode the world, zombie-like, for another three-quarters of a century.
The mythology proved stubbornly durable even after it gestated and birthed a second global war that this time culminated in the unleashing of weapons of unthinkable destructive power, the reality that humankind had arrived at — or perhaps more accurately, stumbled to — the precipice of its own suicide. The fact that atomic weapons have as much regard for lines on maps as the winds that disperse their radioactive fallout might have given European technocrats and their global counterparts some pause. After all, atomic bombs dropped in eastern France, southern Germany, or western Poland would have killed and maimed people in a dozen countries, including artifices like Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.
Yet the ink on Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu’s signature was barely dry aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay when a new generation of foreign service professionals started drawing new lines on new-old maps. Again, the seeds were there all along: At the height of the French Resistance Charles de Gaulle himself schemed for France’s post-war primacy in the Middle East, a French ambition dating back to, appropriately, the Gallic era (aside: de Gaulle arguably is modern history’s Donald Trump prototype — it is difficult to conjure a more nation-first leader than the Tall Asparagus).
It didn’t matter that Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, not to mention Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Vietnam, Korea, and dozens of others were creations of European foreign service bureaucrats and mapmakers, many of whom like their forebears had never ventured beyond the borders of their own countries. Describing one of these arbitrary lines, the demilitarized zone that has divided the Koreas since 1955, Robert D. Kaplan wrote in the Preface to his 2012 book The Revenge of Geography, “like the Berlin Wall, [it] is an arbitrary border of no geographical logic that divides an ethnic nation at the spot where two opposing armies happened to come to rest.” History is replete with such banal happenstance, from the Great Wall of China to the nation of Kuwait.
If World War I was the decisive nail in the coffin of the old world’s system of monarchs and empires, World War II and the Cold War were the apex of nation-state-based international relations, a period in which the threat of nuclear Armageddon made the chess game seem almost rational by comparison. And yet the fully-realized edifice, enforced by history’s first global intergovernmental organization, the United Nations, showed cracks almost immediately. America’s disastrous adventures in Vietnam, Iraq (x2), and Afghanistan stressed the myths to breaking point, at the cost of many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of lives. Our ignominious final withdrawal from Afghanistan was followed with equally head-snapping rapidity by the (re-)arrival of Russian and Chinese for whom the region is the site of ancient battles and prejudices of their own. There are few places where history has reasserted itself as quickly, consistently, and ruthlessly over centuries as it has in the Graveyard of Empires. Likewise, history will regard it as no mere coincidence that AUKUS was consummated exactly 15 days after the last U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster went wheels up from Bagram Air Base.
Blood is thicker than international commerce
And so, with apologies to James Joyce, our story brings us now by commodious vicus of recirculation back to the agreement. Look at the map of Asia, Russia, the subcontinent, and Europe. The myth is right there, in the division of a single land mass into two distinct continents. It’s anyone’s guess where “Asia” ends and “Europe” begins, and always has been – just ask the Kosovars or Turks. Or, for that matter, the Asian minorities who populate much of Siberia, or the Mongol peoples sandwiched in between “Russia” and “China.”
Now look at a map of the whole world, consider AUKUS, and travel west to reach the east. From the UK to the United States and Canada, thorough Australia the agreement covers roughly three-quarters of the globe. Add in treaty and other alliances like NATO and SEATO, bilateral military alliances with the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea in Asia, a 75-year military presence in the Middle East, and de facto (albeit untenable over the long term) hegemony over Central and South America, and the full scope of the New Anglosphere is readily apparent – as are the threats it poses to rival powers China and Russia (India, as it has been since independence, is a geopolitical wildcard, a nation that spends billions earned in trade with the United States to purchase Russian tanks and warplanes to secure its borders with China and Pakistan).
For China in particular AUKUS disinters particularly horrifying ghosts thought to be long decayed and gone, memorialized only in schoolbooks and state propaganda: The ghosts of the Opium Wars, the Middle Kingdom’s ultimate humiliation at the hands of European savages. In this context, Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, while providing hand-wringing material to western foreign service types who even today still insist on viewing the world as a collection of “countries,” fits perfectly into history’s pragmatic arc. China’s humiliations came from the sea in the form of British man-o-war’s and French frigates. In contrast its triumphs have come from the western mountains and upon the Mongolian and Xinjiang steppes. Mao’s stronghold in the early days of the civil war was in the Jinggang Mountains between Jianxi and Hunan provinces, the same natural barrier from whence Chinese and American pilots and crews in the legendary Flying Tigers squadrons helped block Japan’s advance into central China (this history, and its ancient rivalry with India and the Muslim world, brings Beijing’s obsession with Tibet into relief).
History is not politically correct. It cares not one whit that the New Anglosphere is based on a common language imposed over a period of centuries by colonial and imperialistic powers that slaughtered and enslaved millions. It is immaterial that Japan and the United States are among the world’s strongest allies in part because the U.S. obliterated two Japanese cities in the process of defeating it in a total war, subsequently occupied the country, and wrote its constitution. History cares only that the New Anglosphere is connected not just militarily and economically but linguistically and culturally. English is the first or second language in all of the countries that comprise it, and English is the lingua franca of trade and travel between them and the rest of the world. Meanwhile, these days American teenagers are as likely to listen to a K-Pop playlist or Dubai-based DJ as the latest Beyoncé album. Cultural and economic intercourse within the New Anglosphere moves as naturally as the trade winds themselves.
Perhaps most consequentially of all, in the United States our greatest strength, our diversity, means that we remain the heart of this ecosystem. Tens of millions of families are deeply connected to two and often more than two countries other than this one, and often via multiple generations. The increasing irrelevance of “countries” is apparent on our own southern border, where networks of migration are concerned with borders solely to the extent they present nominal physical obstacles (not to mention opportunities for human-based commercial activity like human smuggling). Cross-border connections between communities and families go back generations and are more resilient than the vagaries of immigration policy and enforcement at any given moment under any given administration. Many connections, and even physical routes, date back to the days of Spanish migration and the misións (this aspect of California history is another example of history’s contempt for concepts of human rights and international law. Californians of all stripes are connected by a common history of aboriginal extermination, a fact that demands equivocation when it comes to notions of systemic racism. After all, the impoverished undocumented Latino migrant trying to cross the border from Mexico into California exists because her ancestors exterminated Mayans and other first peoples in central and South America, raising the question why she has any more (or less) right to live in California than descendants of Anglo-Saxon and other Europeans who followed later and exterminated other peoples. Toss in centuries of intermarrying and mutual assimilation and it gets very confusing very quickly).
The extent to which the country’s diversification has strengthened our bonds with our allies cannot be overstated, not to mention the rate at which it has and continues to happen. The geography and history of that process are by now impossible to deny, nor is the fact that the English language is the common denominator.
What remains of the old order?
There are two glaring omissions in AUKUS, France and Germany. This is not an accident. The French and the Anglos share a distrust that dates back 1,500 years. They are currently at odds over a range of economic and security issues as a result of Brexit, as exemplified by fishing rights disputes in the English Channel. Paris claims Britain is unlawfully (there’s that word again) withholding fishing permits for French vessels, and has threatened retaliation in the form of sanctions, power interruptions, even a blockade. Make no mistake, the debate has little to do with halibut. History is reasserting itself in the Channel and North Sea. The dispute is a microcosm of the bigger historic shift: It is an argument based on national fishing rights, that is, which “country” has permission under “international law” to harvest which clupea harengus where, while meanwhile on the eastern frontier Vladimir Putin is simply taking large chunks of other nations’ territories based on an argument that borders do not — or at least should not — reflect reality. Putin recognize that borders violate history, while the rest of Europe is obsessing over whether certain “countries” have a right under “international law” to leave alliances with other “countries.” The disputes are identical, it’s just a matter of semantics.
France’s bellicosity is also a bit of political theater. AUKUS replaced an existing bilateral deal between Australia and France for conventional diesel electric submarines. When Sydney ejected that deal (which under its terms it was within its rights to do) it didn’t just cost France’s defense industry some $60 billion. It effectively ended France’s military relevance in the Asia Pacific theater, reducing it to a bit player in a huge and growing new global alliance. For the French, a prideful people who never quite gave up their global aspirations and for whom the loss of their Asian colonies in “Indochina” remains a source of national humiliation, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. The fact that one of the parties taking their place at the table is their ancient rivals makes it that much more noxious. They are left with the consolation prizes of a few island territories and the occasional strategic exercise — when they’re invited.
President Joe Biden may have made sure to stage a photo op with French President Emanuel Macrón within weeks of the agreement, but it was just that: A photo op. France, along with all of Western Europe now has to decide where its fate lies, whether to look farther west and north for its security, as it has for the last 250 years, or return its gaze east and south, as it did for the 1,750 years before that. Germany faces a similar inflection point: Are they still part of Western Europe, as has been the case since World War I? Or are they the primary power in a new Central Europe, neo-Prussians and neo-Bohemians using main battle tanks and free trade to balance the culture of the west with the civilization of the east? Or perhaps we need to ask a more basic question: Is post-war, unified “Germany” sustainable as a concept at all?
History is forcing these decisions upon those countries and peoples because there is no other set of alternatives. France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and the rest are too small to go it alone and too limited to form their own independent alliance. NATO minus the United States and Canada is a regional alliance at best that, among other deficiencies, fields a total of three light aircraft carriers capable of deploying roughly 50 aircraft in local and regional conflicts, and a small handful of (French) strategic nuclear weapons. During the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbian forces in Kosovo, the United States dropped 60% of all ordinance and provided 70% of logistical flights — in Europe’s own backyard. In the context of 21st century international relations those individual countries amount to prey, and in a North America-less alliance they are the equivalent of herd animals circling around the young as the lions close in.
In contrast, the U.S. fleet alone includes a dozen supercarriers that can deploy nearly 1,000 aircraft in sustained strategic operations over a quarter of the globe at a time. America also possesses more than 3,700 nuclear warheads deployed among the triad of submarines, aircraft, and ICBMs. The UK has four ballistic missile submarines and two blue sea carriers, and Japan has 12 conventional attack submarines and two “helicopter cruisers,” aka the world’s worst kept secret aircraft carriers (even though Japan isn’t signatory to AUKUS it is party in all but name; it could be called AUKUS-J). Again, it is no accident that even as the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan stalemated we were pouring resources into a new alliance that makes far more strategic sense than either of those (mis)adventures ever did. History may well come to regard 2001-2021 as a strange sort of pause d’action on a global scale, when places like Syria, Serbia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Bosnia-Herzegovina seemed not just relevant but immediate and militarily essential. The New Anglosphere makes far more sense.
Does all of this mean that the world is returning to a state of perpetual entropy, chaos, and conflict, exacerbated by climate change into a Malthusian battle over dwindling resources? A cynic might apprehend the coming of a new era of bureaucratized Orwellian mega-states and mega-alliances. AUKUS even sounds like a country straight out of 1984. Meanwhile the emergence of the New Anglosphere is in turn provoking strange bedfellows, pushing China and Russia closer together. China also is engaged independently on the so-called “Belt and Road” initiative, seeking nothing less than the restoration of the ancient Silk Road and the Middle Kingdom’s access to the Middle East and Africa. Could this hearken the dawn of a new sort of Pax Tartaria in Eurasia concurrently with the New Anglosphere, each with allied (or at least non-bellicose) peripheries comprised of historic rivals with nevertheless deep historical and cultural ties?
The answer points to one area in which the old, “country” based order was onto something. The relationship between the United States and China, for example, has proved more durable than many observers predicted three decades ago at the cusp of the last (minor) geopolitical realignment at the end of the Cold War. Far more durable, in fact. It has weathered actual military crises like the downing of a U.S. spy plane by Chinese warplanes in 2001 Hainan Island Incident, conflict over human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and elsewhere, and routine saber rattling by the nuclear armed rivals over various disputes in the Pacific Ocean. As in the Cold War deterrence has worked, so far (that conclusion comes with a sizable asterisk, as the flood of illicit drugs from China to the U.S., particularly fentanyl, increasingly, and increasingly disconcertingly, resembles a sort of reverse version of the English-Chinese opium trade leading up to the Opium Wars, but that’s a story for another day).
There is another layer of insurance, however, in the countries’ economic entanglements. Trade between the economic superpowers is on course to surpass $1 trillion annually by 2030, and likely well before. So dependent are we that it would be a serious question whether we could actually declare war on each other without decimating each other’s economies before the first shot was fired. In a sense, Washington and Beijing are the geopolitical equivalent of Alexander Dumas’s Corsican Brothers, fraternal twins who feel each other’s physical and emotional pain, even from far away. An U.S. attack on China is an attack on our own industrial base; a Chinese attack on the U.S. is an attack on its own economic heartbeat.
Human beings may at last be discovering a natural balance between the realities of global power politics and the needs and wants of the human beings upon whose shoulders it rests (and, equally importantly, without whom those global power politics are meaningless). It’s comforting to think, and of course it’s an open question. What is settled is that the old order is giving way to something new, that “countries” are slowly morphing into a new form of organization and even governance. Perhaps for the first time in the history of our species, with the information of the world available to all who care to look at the tap of a screen, we will be able to listen to history and enter the new era with a scintilla of humility.
We had better get it right. Because history is back, and this time it’s armed with hypersonic nuclear weapons.