July 10, 2024

The US Hasn’t Been This Internationally Isolated Since the Cold War Ended

Biden, facing growing hostility in the global arena, has chosen to bolster ties with Anglophone countries rather than improve relations with the rest of the world.

Michael T. Klare

Joe Biden speaks during a press conference on the final day of the NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain, on June 30, 2022.

(Photo by Jakub Porzycki / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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Wherever he travels globally, President Biden has sought to project the United States as the rejuvenated leader of a broad coalition of democratic nations seeking to defend the “rules-based international order” against encroachments by hostile autocratic powers, especially China, Russia, and North Korea. “We established NATO, the greatest military alliance in the history of the world,” he told veterans of D-Day while at Normandy, France on June 6. “Today…NATO is more united than ever and even more prepared to keep the peace, deter aggression, defend freedom all around the world.”

In other venues, Biden has repeatedly highlighted Washington’s efforts to incorporate the Global South—the developing nations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East—into just such a broad-based US-led coalition. At the recent G7 summit of leading Western powers in southern Italy, for example, he backed measures supposedly designed to engage those countries “in a spirit of equitable and strategic partnership.”

But all of his soaring rhetoric on the subject scarcely conceals an inescapable reality: The United States is more isolated internationally than at any time since the Cold War ended in 1991. It has also increasingly come to rely on a tight-knit group of allies, all of whom are primarily English-speaking and are part of the Anglo-Saxon colonial diaspora. Rarely mentioned in the Western media, the Anglo-Saxonization of American foreign and military policy has become a distinctive—and provocative—feature of the Biden presidency.

America’s Growing Isolation

To get some appreciation for Washington’s isolation in international affairs, just consider the wider world’s reaction to the administration’s stance on the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Joe Biden sought to portray the conflict there as a heroic struggle between the forces of democracy and the brutal fist of autocracy. But while he was generally successful in rallying the NATO powers behind Kyiv—persuading them to provide arms and training to the beleaguered Ukrainian forces, while reducing their economic links with Russia—he largely failed to win over the Global South or enlist its support in boycotting Russian oil and natural gas.

Despite what should have been a foreboding lesson, Biden returned to the same universalist rhetoric in 2023 (and this year as well) to rally global support for Israel in its drive to extinguish Hamas after that group’s devastating October 7 rampage. But for most non-European leaders, his attempt to portray support for Israel as a noble response proved wholly untenable once that country launched its full-scale invasion of Gaza and the slaughter of Palestinian civilians commenced. For many of them, Biden’s words seemed like sheer hypocrisy given Israel’s history of violating UN resolutions concerning the legal rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and its indiscriminate destruction of homes, hospitals, mosques, schools, and aid centers in Gaza. In response to Washington’s continued support for Israel, many leaders of the Global South have voted against the United States on Gaza-related measures at the UN or, in the case of South Africa, have brought suit against Israel at the World Court for perceived violations of the 1948 Genocide Convention.

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In the face of such adversity, the White House has worked tirelessly to bolster its existing alliances, while trying to establish new ones wherever possible. Pity poor Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has made seemingly endless trips to Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East trying to drum up support for Washington’s positions—with consistently meager results.

Here, then, is the reality of this anything but all-American moment: As a global power, the United States possesses a diminishing number of close, reliable allies—most of which are members of NATO, or countries that rely on the United States for nuclear protection (Japan and South Korea), or are primarily English-speaking (Australia and New Zealand). And when you come right down to it, the only countries the US really trusts are the “Five Eyes.”

For Their Eyes Only

The “Five Eyes” (FVEY) is an elite club of five English-speaking countries—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States—that have agreed to cooperate in intelligence matters and share top-secret information. They all became parties to what was at first the bilateral UKUSA Agreement, a 1946 treaty for secret cooperation between the two countries in what’s called “signals intelligence”—data collected by electronic means, including by tapping phone lines or listening in on satellite communications. (The agreement was later amended to include the other three nations.) Almost all of the Five Eyes’ activities are conducted in secret, and its existence was not even disclosed until 2010. You might say that it constitutes the most secretive, powerful club of nations on the planet.

The origins of the Five Eyes can be traced back to World War II, when American and British codebreakers, including famed computer theorist Alan Turing, secretly convened at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking establishment, to share intelligence gleaned from solving the German “Enigma” code and the Japanese “Purple” code. At first an informal arrangement, the secretive relationship was formalized in the British-US Communication Intelligence Agreement of 1943 and, after the war ended, in the UKUSA Agreement of 1946. That arrangement allowed for the exchange of signals intelligence between the National Security Agency (NSA) and its British equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)—an arrangement that persists to this day and undergirds what has come to be known as the “special relationship” between the two countries.

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Then, in 1955, at the height of the Cold War, that intelligence-sharing agreement was expanded to include those other three English-speaking countries, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. For secret information exchange, the classification “AUS/CAN/NZ/UK/US EYES ONLY” was then affixed to all the documents they shared, and from that came the “Five Eyes” label. France, Germany, Japan, and a few other countries have since sought entrance to that exclusive club, but without success.

Although largely a Cold War artifact, the Five Eyes intelligence network continued operating right into the era after the Soviet Union collapsed, spying on militant Islamic groups and government leaders in the Middle East, while eavesdropping on Chinese business, diplomatic, and military activities in Asia and elsewhere. According to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, such efforts were conducted under specialized top-secret programs like Echelon, a system for collecting business and government data from satellite communications, and PRISM, an NSA program to collect data transmitted via the Internet.

As part of that Five Eyes endeavor, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia jointly maintain a controversial, highly secret intelligence-gathering facility at Pine Gap, Australia, near the small city of Alice Springs. Known as the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, it’s largely run by the NSA, CIA, GCHQ, and the Australian Security Intelligence Organization. Its main purpose, according to Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, is to eavesdrop on radio, telephone, and internet communications in Asia and the Middle East and share that information with the intelligence and military arms of the Five Eyes. Since the Israeli invasion of Gaza was launched, it is also said to be gathering intelligence on Palestinian forces in Gaza and sharing that information with the Israeli Defense Forces. This, in turn, prompted a rare set of protests at the remote base when, in late 2023, dozens of pro-Palestinian activists sought to block the facility’s entry road.

From all accounts, in other words, the Five Eyes collaboration remains as robust as ever. As if to signal that fact, FBI director Christopher Wray offered a rare acknowledgment of its ongoing existence in October 2023 when he invited his counterparts from the FVEY countries to join him at the first Emerging Technology and Securing Innovation Security Summit in Palo Alto, California, a gathering of business and government officials committed to progress in artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity. Going public, moreover, was a way of normalizing the Five Eyes partnership and highlighting its enduring significance.

Anglo-Saxon Solidarity in Asia

The Biden administration’s preference for relying on Anglophone countries in promoting its strategic objectives has been especially striking in the Asia-Pacific region. The White House has been clear that its primary goal in Asia is to construct a network of US-friendly states committed to the containment of China’s rise. This was spelled out, for example, in the administration’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States” of 2022. Citing China’s muscle-flexing in Asia, it called for a common effort to resist that country’s “bullying of neighbors in the East and South China” and so protect the freedom of commerce. “A free and open Indo-Pacific can only be achieved if we build collective capacity for a new age,” the document stated. “We will pursue this through a latticework of strong and mutually reinforcing coalitions.”

That “latticework,” it indicated, would extend to all American allies and partners in the region, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, and South Korea, as well as friendly European parties (especially Great Britain and France). Anyone willing to help contain China, the mantra seems to go, is welcome to join that US-led coalition. But if you look closely, the renewed prominence of Anglo-Saxon solidarity becomes ever more evident.

Of all the military agreements signed by the Biden administration with America’s Pacific allies, none is considered more important in Washington than AUKUS, a strategic partnership agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Announced by the three member states on September 15, 2021, it contains two “pillars,” or areas of cooperation—the first focused on submarine technology and the second on AI, autonomous weapons, as well as other advanced technologies. As in the FVEY arrangement, both pillars involve high-level exchanges of classified data, but also include a striking degree of military and technological cooperation. And note the obvious: There is no equivalent US agreement with any non-English-speaking country in Asia.

Consider, for instance, the Pillar I submarine arrangement. As the deal now stands, Australia will gradually retire its fleet of six diesel-powered submarines and purchase three to five top-of-the-line US-made Los Angeles–class nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), while it works with the United Kingdom to develop a whole new class of subs, the SSN-AUKUS, to be powered by an American-designed nuclear propulsion system. But—get this—to join, the Australians first had to scrap a $90 billion submarine deal with a French defense firm, causing a severe breach in the Franco-Australian relationship and demonstrating, once again, that Anglo-Saxon solidarity supersedes all other relationships.

Now, with the French out of the picture, the United States and Australia are proceeding with plans to build those Los Angeles–class SSNs—a multibillion-dollar venture that will require Australian naval officers to study nuclear propulsion in the United States. When the subs are finally launched (possibly in the early 2030s), American submariners will sail with the Australians to help them gain experience with such systems. Meanwhile, American military contractors will be working with Australia and the UK designing and constructing a next-generation sub, the SSN-AUKUS, that’s supposed to be ready in the 2040s. The three AUKUS partners will also establish a joint submarine base near Perth in Western Australia.

Pillar II of AUKUS has received far less media attention but is no less important. It calls for American, British, Australian scientific and technical cooperation in advanced technologies, including AI, robotics, and hypersonics, aimed at enhancing the future military capabilities of all three, including through the development of robot submarines that could be used to spy on or attack Chinese ships and subs.

Aside from the extraordinary degree of cooperation on sensitive military technologies—far greater than the US has with any other countries—the three-way partnership also represents a significant threat to China. The substitution of nuclear-powered subs for diesel-powered ones in Australia’s fleet and the establishment of a joint submarine base at Perth will enable the three AUKUS partners to conduct significantly longer undersea patrols in the Pacific and, were a war to break out, attack Chinese ships, ports, and submarines across the region. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that the Chinese have repeatedly denounced the arrangement, which represents a potentially mortal threat to them.

Unintended Consequences

It’s hardly a surprise that the Biden administration, facing growing hostility and isolation in the global arena, has chosen to bolster its ties further with other Anglophone countries rather than make the policy changes needed to improve relations with the rest of the world. The administration knows exactly what it would have to do to begin to achieve that objective: discontinue arms deliveries to Israel until the fighting stops in Gaza; help reduce the burdensome debt load of so many developing nations; and promote food, water security, and other life-enhancing measures in the Global South. Yet, despite promises to take just such steps, President Biden and his top foreign policy officials have focused on other priorities—the encirclement of China above all else—while the inclination to lean on Anglo-Saxon solidarity has only grown.

However, by reserving Washington’s warmest embraces for its anglophone allies, the administration has actually been creating fresh threats to US security. Many countries in contested zones on the emerging geopolitical chessboard, especially in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, were once under British colonial rule and so anything resembling a potential Washington-London neocolonial restoration is bound to prove infuriating to them. Add to that the inevitable propaganda from China, Iran, and Russia about a developing Anglo-Saxon imperial nexus and you have an obvious recipe for widespread global discontent.

It’s undoubtedly convenient to use the same language when sharing secrets with your closest allies, but that should hardly be the deciding factor in shaping this nation’s foreign policy. If the United States is to prosper in an increasingly diverse, multicultural world, it will have learn to think and act in a far more multicultural fashion—and that should include eliminating any vestiges of an exclusive Anglo-Saxon global power alliance.

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Michael T. Klare

Michael T. Klare, The Nation’s defense correspondent, is professor emeritus of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire College and senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. Most recently, he is the author of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change.

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