The breakdown in Franco-British relations after the announcement of the Aukus security pact, between Australia, the UK and the US, is no mere military misunderstanding or diplomatic dispute. Rather, it has profound implications for the future of the West. Paris and London are pulling in different directions. One thing can stop this and avert permanent division: Britain and France must renew the covenantal promise of the Entente Cordiale – an enduring commitment to peace and partnership across the generations, anchored in a common civilisational heritage.
As two British writers with a profound affection for France, we have watched with dismay as longstanding relations between the two countries are undone before our eyes. Brexit has created a climate of mutual suspicion, fuelling contractual disputes over Covid vaccine procurement and Jersey fishing rights. But we see Aukus as something far more serious than a broken contract or a power struggle between today’s political leaders. It jeopardises a deeper understanding of Europe and the wider West as a “civilisational commonwealth” of nations and peoples in which the bonds of reciprocity and trust matter more than trade or formal treaties – bonds that Edmund Burke described as “obligations written into the heart”.
The most powerful expression of this idea of Western commonwealth is the 120-year-old Entente Cordiale that binds together Britain and France. This “friendly understanding”, which was never about contractual arrangements, is a covenant based on commerce, culture and kinship that was forged after centuries of conflict and proved in the brutal sacrifice of two world wars. In terms of alliances, no other relationship within the Western community comes close. Washington, DC and Canberra are comrades, of course – but America will never treat Britain as an equal, and Australia will never be a neighbour.
The strength of the Entente Cordiale is that it has not always been easy. Like any sibling nation, Britain has long been a competitor to France as well as a comrade. But that is what has made the alliance unique: the fact that it has required true commitment from both sides in the face of narrow national self-interest instead of just maintaining the balance of power. Winston Churchill understood this when he described “the great French nation and people to whom we have been joined so long in war and peace” as Britain’s fellow “trustees” of European and Western civilisation.
Aukus disrupts the Entente’s covenant. It is an auxiliary alliance that complements the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Aukus locks the main Anglophone countries into the defence of a US-led strategy against China. This reflects America’s longer-term geopolitical realignment away from the Euro-Atlantic arena, towards the Pacific and East Asia. At the same time, the European Union – led by its only military superpower, France – looks to secure a Mediterranean, North Africa and Middle East arena abandoned by the Anglosphere.
As these spheres of influence diverge, Aukus represents a permanent division of the West as old alliances get pulled into opposite directions in a new geopolitical reality. Faced with the growing US-China clash, the wider Western community faces the serious prospect of breaking apart.
Neither the US nor the EU can revive the West. America’s strategic shift to the Pacific will mean a growing disengagement from the affairs of Europe, leaving a void that the EU cannot fill for as long as it cosies up to China. Both America and the EU are deeply divided, and they lack an overarching civilisational outlook.
The UK and France are central to the destiny of the West not just because they are the geographical meeting point of two competing spheres of influence, but above all because they are also the crucible of civilisations that connect Europe to the Anglosphere.
Achieving this will require a renewed commitment from both London and Paris to the foundational promise of the Entente Cordiale. Empty words about “global Britain” and French “soft power” do nothing to meet the existential challenge facing the West. Nor does unseemly political jostling for hard power over workaday issues like vaccines and fishing rights. Britain and France must rise to the moment and revive their old alliance in a new entente civilisationnelle.
A new entente civilisationnelle would represent the most enduring covenant at the heart of the Western community – a commitment to the preservation of peace by recognising mutual dependence without unilateral domination. Under Franco-British leadership, the Western community can recover a sense of shared destiny based on bonds of trust and cooperation.
From the ashes of the old order, Britain and France must rebuild their relationship by renewing the promise at the heart of the Entente Cordiale. The future of the West and the world depends on it.