When President Joe Biden’s administration decided in April to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, its pronouncement was met with displeasure bordering on fury from European officials, who felt they had not been adequately consulted. Yet occasional highhandedness toward European allies had been a feature of the last two Democratic U.S. administrations, not just recent Republican ones. And European policymakers could at least console themselves that there was now a highly professional cadre of senior officials in the White House, at the State Department, and at the Pentagon, most of whom they had come to know from previous government roles; these U.S. officials would ensure the Afghan intervention that the United States and its European allies had embarked on together two decades ago would be brought to an acceptable close.
Then came the Taliban’s lightning rout of the Afghan military, the collapse of the country’s government, and the scenes of chaos at the international airport in Kabul. These events not only revealed Washington’s profound misreading of the situation in Afghanistan but called into question European confidence in the Biden administration’s competence. Even more troubling, they caused current and former European officials and leading columnists to ask whether European governments and other U.S. allies could trust any U.S. administration, whether the Biden administration or a future Republican one, to stand by its external security commitments in the future.
Fortunately, Washington’s flawed and hasty exit from Afghanistan does not herald a broader rupture in transatlantic relations nor a weakening of Washington’s commitment to key alliances. At a time of growing global threats, the United States and Europe will continue to deepen the renewed transatlantic cooperation ushered in by the Biden administration.
Biden made clear from the outset that he would prioritize what National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his colleagues, then at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have called a U.S. foreign policy for the middle class—that is, a foreign policy supported by or attuned to the interests of the majority of American voters, not just the received wisdoms of U.S. foreign policy elites. Rejoining the Paris climate accord while sustaining trade tariffs on China and, to a lesser extent, Europe reflected elements of this new U.S. approach. Ending the “forever” intervention in Afghanistan was its litmus test and a logical carryover from President Donald Trump’s administration.
This more domestically focused approach to U.S. foreign policy might make sense in the current political climate. But why should European governments and other U.S. allies suppose that the American middle class is any more concerned about the security of Latvia and Lithuania, or of Taiwan for that matter, than they are about the security of Afghanistan? And if Biden can be so quick to lay the blame on Afghanistan’s leaders for not standing up to the Taliban, why should he not be equally dismissive of the concerns of European governments that spend on average a little over one percent of their GDP on defending themselves from Russia and other threats in their neighborhood while still being overly dependent on the U.S. security umbrella? These questions have dominated the headlines since the spectacular fall of Kabul, but they miss the mark for three reasons.
First, nothing that has taken place so far in Afghanistan will shift the Biden administration’s focus away from confronting its number one foreign policy challenge: managing the rise of China. In fact, the Afghanistan withdrawal is a conscious and brutal effort to refocus U.S. strategic priorities away from the broader Middle East and toward the Pacific. Critically for Europeans, the Biden administration recognizes in ways the Trump administration did not that the China challenge can be managed successfully only in collaboration with allies. Washington’s European allies are central to this strategy—not, evidently, because of their geographic location but because of China’s vital interconnections with European economies and because of European countries’ strong voice in the multilateral institutions where China is trying to rewrite global rules of trade, investment, and technology governance. Transatlantic division weakens the United States’ China policy, whereas U.S. commitment to the transatlantic relationship helps buy Europe’s support.
The public debacle in Kabul will force Biden to demonstrate that the United States is “back” globally where it matters.
Part of Europe’s unstated price for helping the United States manage China is continued American engagement with Europe on managing Russia, which is the more proximate and persistent threat to the interests of many European governments. Biden has not called this bargain into question. To the contrary, he used his June 14 summit with other NATO leaders, including a separate meeting with Baltic state leaders, to underscore the U.S. commitment to European security and to Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which obligates member states to consider an attack on one ally as an attack on all, even as European leaders agreed for the first time to highlight China in their NATO and EU-U.S. communiques.
Second, rather than heralding a break in the United States’ alliance commitments and a retreat behind its borders, the public nature of the debacle in Kabul—with its parallels to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975—is more likely to force Biden to demonstrate that the United States is indeed “back” globally where it matters. This will be largely alongside European leaders, as the Biden administration follows through on the pledges from its June summit meetings in Europe, such as those to establish the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council and an EU-U.S. COVID Manufacturing and Supply Chain Task Force and to participate in the EU’s project to enable faster troop movement across Europe. The Biden administration will also likely place greater emphasis on U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, follow through on defense industrial cooperation with India, and further efforts to institutionalize the Quad, given that Australia, India, and Japan are essential to U.S. plans to limit China’s growing influence in South Asia and Southeast Asia.
Third, European governments are now irretrievably invested in the success of the Biden administration regardless of what happens in Afghanistan. Almost all European governments, including the largest—France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom—know they need to renew the transatlantic partnership in the face of a more assertive and confrontational China and Russia. The United States is also a vital partner in confronting the most urgent global issues on the minds of European governments and citizens—above all, the challenge of halting the rise in global temperatures. Europeans will not let Afghanistan or the Kabul fiasco distract them for long from working with the United States to prepare for the next pivotal UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November.
While the Afghanistan debacle has triggered predictable reminders of the importance of achieving greater European “strategic autonomy,” this autonomy need not come at the expense of transatlantic coordination. In some areas, such as the regulation of digital and financial markets, Europeans need to deepen their coordination, principally to negotiate more effectively with the United States. In others, they simply need to take greater collective responsibility for their own specific interests, such as in North Africa, the Sahel, and the eastern Mediterranean. The same goes for the future of Afghanistan, given that it will be a growing source of refugees and migrants to Europe and could reemerge as an incubator of international terrorism unless the situation there stabilizes rapidly. Steps to address these risks would make greater European strategic autonomy a complement to a stronger transatlantic relationship.
STILL GOT IT
This still leaves the question of whether the United States’ rivals will take meaningful advantage of this moment of U.S. humiliation. Undoubtedly, they will try. The editor of China’s Global Times has already called the Afghan transition of power “more smooth” than the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations. The Russian government has been more circumspect, reflecting its fear that Afghanistan under a Taliban government might, wittingly or unwittingly, become a haven once again for terrorist groups that will be as threatening, if not more, to Moscow as it is to Washington.
But just as the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam did not derail the United States’ continued journey to economic and geopolitical dominance in the twentieth century, so the chaotic exodus from Afghanistan need not herald U.S. global decline in the twenty-first. Power in international relations is always relative. And in relative terms, the United States has far more going for it structurally and societally than its two main geopolitical rivals, especially if it works closely with its allies to achieve their mutual goals.
The messy end of the Afghan war need not distract the Biden administration from pursuing its shared priorities with its European partners and should instead drive both sides to demonstrate their continued commitment to each other’s security. The new initiatives that the Biden administration has put in place with its European and Asian allies in the past six months promise to be far more meaningful to the future of transatlantic and Indo-Pacific security than the legacy of its failures in Afghanistan.
Failure in Afghanistan Won’t Weaken America’s Alliances is written by Robin Niblett for www.foreignaffairs.com