Biden was keen to stress that AUKUS is an example of an alliance that projects American power, contrasting the development with Donald Trump’s rejection of such global compacts, which the former president saw as freeloading on the U.S. And it is certainly true that the new grouping marks a break from Trump’s “America alone” approach. As one U.K. official put it to me: “Biden’s proposition is that China doesn’t do alliances, but ours have got a bit sleepy.” This is also a move to stabilize an order that Trump rejected. This, then, is a break from Trumpism—even if the French and other Europeans believe that the way they have been treated shows similar contempt.
For those in the U.S. concerned about the country’s imperial overreach, news that it has signed up to yet another alliance in defense of areas of the world far from its shores may seem like a nightmarish déjà vu, just as the argument for strategic retrenchment appeared to be winning following America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden and Johnson see a world of multiple and complementary alliances. Biden, for example, spoke of “the quad” in his statement, the informal grouping of the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia that is another pillar of Washington’s Chinese-containment policy. This marks a contrast to the 20th-century world, one which centered on a continent-wide military alliance to contain America’s then–rival superpower and a globe-spanning trade body. Johnson sees the emergence of today’s world, more ad hoc and nimble, as perfect for post-Brexit Britain, which has—in his mind—unshackled itself from the permanence and inflexibility of the European Union to enter a more “dynamic” world where Britain can react quickly to events, signing up to new alliances such as AUKUS based on its own national interests. (Critics would, of course, point out that EU membership and global alliances are not mutually exclusive—see France.)