Just over 24 hours after the last US troops had flown out of Kabul, completing America’s gruelling and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan, Joe Biden declared the start of a new chapter for American foreign policy.
“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan,” the 78-year-old US president said in televised remarks from the White House’s State Dining Room on Tuesday. “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
Biden’s comments were not particularly novel: his scepticism of the US war in Afghanistan dates back to the Obama administration, and his desire to wind it down had been both a 2020 election campaign pledge and a priority since entering the White House in January.
Yet both the chaotic nature of the pullout and Biden’s emphasis on its broader significance are reverberating across Washington and the world, crystallising America’s shift of the past few years towards a more restrained and cautious exercise of its military power.
To supporters of Biden’s approach, the move reflects what they see as an overdue recalibration of America’s national security policy, after the fruitless and costly conflicts that unfolded over the past two decades. They believe the shift will give US officials and the military more space to focus on confronting big strategic rivals like China and Russia, and taking on global challenges like the climate crisis, without being bogged down in open-ended conflicts, particularly in the Middle East.
Others are worried that Biden is ushering in a more risky era of American retrenchment, which might embolden its adversaries, unnerve its most vulnerable allies, undermine its push for human rights, and dash some of the hopes of a return to strong US global leadership in the wake of Donald Trump’s four years in office.
“A way will need to be found to demonstrate American power in the foreseeable future — otherwise the Chinese and the Russians will automatically believe this is the century when China comes into its own and authoritarian regimes succeed. That would be very dangerous,” says one European diplomat.
“My concern right now is: how does the rest of the world see us?,” asks William Cohen, the former US defence secretary under Bill Clinton. “What are the calculations of [China and Russia]? And equally important, what are the calculation of our allies?”.
‘Our priorities lie elsewhere’
The pendulum of US foreign and defence policy has tended to experience generational shifts between assertiveness and pullbacks over the past century. The war in Vietnam triggered the last big backlash against large military deployments as well as massive antiwar protests around the country. In 1969, the then president Richard Nixon, called for the US not to “undertake all the defence of the free nations of the world”.
But a little over a decade later, after Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office, America’s reluctance to use military force in a big way had eased: both presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton used large-scale military interventions in Iraq during the first Gulf war and the conflict in Kosovo respectively, to defend international law and to punish human rights violations.
The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq launched by George W Bush after the September 11 terror attacks were far more brazen, complicated, and bloody — leading to a slow and steady loss of support among the public at home, and straining America’s global alliances.
“We saw a mission of counter-terrorism in Afghanistan — getting the terrorists to stop the attacks — morph into a counterinsurgency, nation building, trying to create a democratic, cohesive and united Afghanistan,” Biden said on Tuesday. “Moving on from that mindset and those kind of large-scale troop deployments will make us stronger and more effective and safer at home”.
Foreign policy experts in Washington say Biden’s comments still give him plenty of flexibility to use force if needed. “I don’t see the decision in Afghanistan as being at all that the United States would hesitate to use force if it was in its interest. Biden’s decision was that it was no longer in the interest of the United States to continue a decades-long effort in Afghanistan that was costing lives and treasure. And that our priorities lie elsewhere,” says Tom Donilon, the former US national security adviser under Barack Obama.
Jim Dobbins, a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation think-tank and a former senior US state department official, cautions that American presidents’ intentions to steer clear of significant foreign military operations are often shortlived and overtaken by events.
“It’s ahistorical and I think equally unlikely going forward to think that we will confine ourselves to such a narrow definition of American vital interests,” says Dobbins, “or such a narrow scope for American interventions.”
The threat from China
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, says that the “core” of the president’s foreign policy “vision” has been the same since his days in the Senate.
Sullivan points to its main components: “A strong America that works together with partners and allies to stand up for our shared values, advance our shared interests, and demonstrate — even in the face of new and accelerating global challenges — that democracy can deliver for the American people and for people around the world”.
Former US officials and diplomats say that had the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan gone more smoothly, it would have been more reassuring, and consistent, with Sullivan’s words. But the manner in which it unfolded, with US allies blindsided by the speed of the Taliban takeover and pleading in vain for more time to evacuate their citizens, has undermined confidence in the US.
“We knew it would happen, we knew it would happen soon, we had prepared for the idea of leaving together, but we didn’t expect this somewhat artificial acceleration. What surprised us was the way it happened and we would have expected more co-operation”, says another European diplomat.
US officials — including Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary, and Kamala Harris, the vice-president — have in recent days been rushing to thank allies around the world, including the Gulf states, for their help with the evacuation, to reiterate America’s commitment to their security, and to co-ordinate efforts to engage with the new Taliban government.
“Maintaining and building US credibility with allies and competitors alike will be a key challenge for this administration to meet, going forward from the Afghanistan withdrawal,” says Mara Rudman, vice-president for policy at the Center for American Progress.
It is far from clear, however, that all the jitters and frictions will be patched up so quickly.
“For western allies it will prompt a serious discussion in Nato and elsewhere about what it means to do big operations in the future”, the first European diplomat says. “Otherwise we do run the risk that the Russian ‘end of the west’ narrative gains credence outside the transatlantic alliance.” Far bigger worries may emerge in Taiwan, Ukraine or other countries that are highly dependent on a US security guarantee.
The US still has 200,000 troops deployed overseas, everywhere from Bahrain to Germany and South Korea, and a $700bn annual defence budget — a massive military force to be reckoned with.
Michael McKinley, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan and a veteran former diplomat, says America is “not retreating” more generally — and the departure from Afghanistan should not have “implications in the rest of the world”. However, the failure in Afghanistan has made it even more important for the Biden administration to succeed with the rest of its foreign policy and domestic goals, he says.
“The real question is, does that broader agenda have legs?” asks McKinley. “Is America, successfully reintegrating itself on transnational issues like climate change, technology, the pandemic response, and developing a coherent strategy for dealing with China and Russia?”.
The second European diplomat does not see the US as a “country that will give up certain things”, such as the fight against terrorism, or the pursuit of human rights, but notes: “I see a country that is very focused on itself”.
At home, Biden has placed heavy emphasis on his plans for a $1.2tn infrastructure programme, a $3.5tn social spending package and sweeping tax increases on companies and the wealthy, which are seen as critical to America’s efforts to challenge its international rivals on the economic front. Still, perceptions of American strength or weakness around the world may be dictated more by the state of US democracy, given the lingering influence of former president Donald Trump and his challenges to traditional institutions and open elections.
Nathalie Tocci, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, a foreign policy think-tank in Rome, and a visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, says that Biden’s strategy “makes sense for a superpower that is in relative decline”.
But as the US moves more cautiously in projecting its military muscle, Washington could face similar dilemmas to those faced by European countries. “We [in Europe] don’t know what to do about Turkey, we don’t know what to do about Belarus. It’s not just about Afghanistan. We haven’t known what to do about some of these places now for a long time,” says Tocci. “We don’t have the answer either, but we need to find it.”