In New Role, Britain Takes Global Stage
LONDON — As relations between France and the United States sink to their lowest depths in decades, Britain has emerged as the unlikely winner in a maritime security alliance that has sowed anger and recrimination across three continents.
The British government played an early role in brokering the three-way alliance with the United States and Australia to deploy nuclear-powered submarines in the Pacific, according to officials in London and Washington. The landmark agreement was announced hours after Australia canceled a $66 billion deal for diesel-electric submarines with France, provoking fury in Paris and quiet satisfaction in London.
For Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it is his first tangible victory in a campaign to make post-Brexit Britain a player on the global stage.
Since leaving the European Union 18 months ago, Brexiteers have latched on to the phrase “Global Britain,” which has seemed more a marketing slogan than a coherent foreign policy.
Yet the deal sealed on September 15, in which the United States and Britain would supply Australia with the submarines, confirmed Britain’s status as a military power with nuclear expertise, as well as a trusted ally of the United States. It also lent credibility to Mr. Johnson’s effort to build a British presence in Asia.
Britain has negotiated trade deals with Australia, Japan and South Korea, and deployed an aircraft carrier to help the United States keep an eye on China in the South China Sea, where Beijing is constructing a chain of military installations.
“It does for the first time start to flesh out Global Britain,” said Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to Washington. “We’re starting to build a real presence, in the defense and economic spheres.”
Australia approached Britain to propose that the British and Americans help it deploy nuclear-powered submarines, according to British officials. The Australians concluded that the models provided by the French were not going to be adequate for a future in which China posed an ever greater threat.
For Mr. Johnson, who has made the “special relationship” with the United States the cornerstone of his foreign policy, the submarine deal was compensation for having his views on Afghanistan brushed aside by President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Johnson, officials said, wanted the pullout to be contingent on conditions on the ground. The prime minister has made it clear that Britain will back Mr. Biden on his Number 1 priority: the competition with China.
For all of the satisfaction in London, Britain still faces daunting geopolitical realities. The submarine deal is likely to worsen its relationship with France, which is already strained. And Mr. Johnson should not count on smooth sailing with Washington, either. Britain may find itself at odds over Northern Ireland, where it is pressing for changes in post-Brexit trade arrangements.
Analysts said Mr. Biden’s treatment of Britain on Afghanistan, coupled with the short notice the White House gave France before announcing the alliance, showed that the United States would pursue its interests without regard to the sensitivities of trans-Atlantic relationships.
“The most remarkable thing is how little the Americans are talking about this and how much the Brits are,” said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and the Americas program at Chatham House, a British research institution. “That basic fact captures a lot about the special relationship. Special doesn’t mean equal.”