In the early days of Joe Biden’s presidency, many world leaders feared that Biden would simply be a welcome, but temporary, reprieve from former President Donald Trump’s nativist and isolationist politics. When Biden was running for president, he had tried to assuage those concerns by saying on his first day in office he’d reach out to our NATO allies and assure them they could once again count on the US.
Now this fear has been replaced by a new concern — that this is all indeed a ghastly continuum. The fact is America is not back. It is in a rushed retreat, most recently in the one place where Western allies had come together two decades ago.
Let’s start with the NATO alliance. The terrorist attacks of September 11, planned from al Qaeda headquarters in Taliban-run Afghanistan, were the first and only time that Article 5 of the NATO alliance — an attack on one member was an attack on all — had ever been invoked. This led, at its peak, to an overwhelming partnership of tens of thousands of troops from NATO nations, which first dislodged the Taliban and then held them at bay for 20 years.
In the early days of the war, there was a collective belief in the righteousness of this cause. But all of that has now changed.
In Europe, leaders are now struggling with potential abandonment by Biden. “Europe alone cannot shoulder the consequences of the current situation,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, who is about to embark on his own campaign for reelection and is concerned about Afghan refugees who may flee to the continent.
Macron said he’d talked with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders to “build without delay a robust, coordinated response,” without a mention of the United States. This omission signaled that Macron likely does not believe the US is doing enough to protect those now in the Taliban’s crosshairs.
“I say this with a heavy heart and with horror over what is happening, but the early withdrawal was a serious and far-reaching miscalculation by the current administration,” said Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign relations committee.
Röttgen’s British counterpart, Tobias Ellwood, chair of the UK parliament’s defense committee, went even further. “This is an absolute blunder, with long-term strategic consequences.” As of Tuesday night, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was the only European ally of the United States who had spoken at all with Biden. Biden will get his chance to present his position to a virtual summit of G-7 leaders next week.
Meanwhile, the European Union, in its declaration by the High Representative, failed to mention the United States even once, focusing on its pledge “to continue its support to the Afghan people and to democracy, good governance, human rights and social and economic development in the country.”
Removing the United States from the global conversation — and potentially even the global equation — will have detrimental consequences for America’s ability to shape the global agenda going forward and could accelerate the growing feeling in Europe for a need to pursue independent courses of action. (It was Macron himself who had proposed a European defense force independent of the US just a few years ago.)
There are countries where the need for a constant, unwavering American presence is itself a matter of potentially existential proportions. A Ukrainian commentator pointed to Biden’s remark that the US had no interest in “an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict” and asked “whether Biden has a similar date in mind when it comes to US support and assistance for Ukraine.” While in April Biden had pledged his “unwavering” support for Ukraine in its ongoing faceoff with Russia, not to mention $100 million in military aid, he quickly put the offer on hold when Russia withdrew troops that had held threatening maneuvers near Ukraine’s border.
But any reduction in American influence and weight in global deliberations is bound to impact the US position in some other critical areas. Nuclear talks with Iran remain suspended, and a weakened American negotiating position will certainly not help persuade the Iranians to make any serious concessions — whenever nuclear talks might be restarted. Especially, now, as Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, names a new hard-line cabinet and is settling into power. At the same time, according to a UN watchdog, Iran has not ceased to move forward steadily with its processing of enriched uranium.
Even Russia and China are scrambling. Their early support for the Taliban is part of hedging their bets over the reaction in their own homegrown Muslim communities — the Chechens and the Uyghurs, respectively. Neither country wants Afghanistan to give safe harbor to Muslim liberation groups they consider to be terrorists. Still, they, along with Pakistan, which provided refuge to the Taliban for years, are prepared to play into the vacuum America is leaving — in Afghanistan and more broadly as well.
For the immediate future, there is no good path forward for the United States. New powers are emerging: the European Union, perhaps with one of its own young leaders — Emmanuel Macron — not to mention a powerful and resurgent China. Though the US has managed to disengage from a war that few at home ever truly embraced, the price may be far too high for both America’s own safety and for its long-term standing within the international community.