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No, the western alliance is not about to break up. And America is not about to drift off into some isolationist reverie. Afghanistan is too peripheral to trigger such a dramatic shift. But the chaotic nature of America’s withdrawal, and the slight felt by most of its allies, have put an abrupt end to President Joe Biden’s international honeymoon. It has also left the world — and much of Washington — in confusion. What does Biden mean by “America is back”? To which America is he referring?
The answer is not obvious. Biden’s Afghan pullout fulfilled one promise, to get out of “forever wars”, and broke another, to restore the primacy of America’s alliances. The second promise was what sharply differentiated Biden from Donald Trump. Biden supposedly values allies. Europe’s chagrin is that Biden could have fulfilled both vows if he had closely consulted with them on his Afghan exit. He chose not to. The fact that Nato was there at America’s behest rubbed salt into the wound. The 9/11 attacks marked the only time Nato has invoked its Article V mutual defence clause — following an assault on America, not Europe.
Europe is accustomed to getting short shrift, sometimes deservedly, sometimes not. In 1956 Dwight Eisenhower rightly applied US economic pressure on Britain and France to force an end to their Suez Canal adventure. In 2003, George W Bush brushed aside France and Germany’s objections to his Iraq invasion plans. Lyndon Johnson might have paid more heed to Harold Wilson, who kept Britain out of the Vietnam war, the only time the UK has not stood shoulder-to-shoulder with America in a serious war. Whether they are in the right or wrong, Europeans are sufficiently committed to the US alliance to survive being treated as irritants. The transatlantic world is ultimately held together by mutual interests.
But the west cannot go on indefinitely without a strategy. The solution to that lies mostly with America. Eight months into his presidency, Biden has yet to settle on a clear foreign policy. He campaigned on slogans such as “restoring alliances”, “promoting democracy”, pursuing a “foreign policy for the middle class” and focusing on Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific. All of these, particularly ending “forever wars”, sound good to most western ears. But they do not stack up with each other. To govern is to choose and Biden is not there yet.
The tension between Biden’s aspirations come to a head on China. Much like with Afghanistan, there is little of substance on China to distinguish Biden from Trump. Biden has retained tariffs on Chinese goods. On 5G he is asking global partners to choose between Huawei and an as yet unspecified alternative. And Biden’s rationale for pulling out of Afghanistan is to focus US resources on the Indo-Pacific.
That will be news to India, which is meant to be America’s biggest counterweight to China. Pakistan, India’s eternal adversary, has just become stronger with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, which is now Islamabad’s client state. China has also received a shot in the arm, not only because Pakistan is its close ally. Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative was launched in Kazakhstan in 2013, the largest state in Central Asia. Xi’s biggest missing piece in the region was Afghanistan. The signs are that the Taliban will approve Chinese infrastructure and mineral extraction investment in exchange for denying sanctuary to Uyghur separatists fighting Chinese repression in Xinjiang.
Biden has taken a big step to end America’s “forever wars”. But judging by these foreseeable consequences, how will the Afghan exit help Biden’s other goals, such as China containment and democracy promotion? The answer is murky. In the coming weeks Biden will be under pressure to justify his Afghan move by taking stronger action against China. His instinct will be to resist.
Biden’s real priority is to pass his domestic fiscal bills to juice up the US middle-class economy before next year’s midterm elections. If you drop the word “foreign”, that may be what Biden really means by a foreign policy for the middle class.
Viewed from anywhere in the US, the differences between Biden and Trump are stark. But the further you go from America’s shores, the more they narrow. Which brings us back to “America is back”. The Democratic party is back, although for how long is an open question. Most of America’s friends strongly prefer Democrats to Trumpism. But they are still unsure what that means for America’s role in the world. The suspicion, probably a good one, is that America does not know either.