Visiting Brussels earlier this summer, President Joe Biden was single-minded in his message to American allies.
“America is back,” he declared in the lobby of the European Union’s headquarters, repeating a mantra he had uttered at nearly every stop of his first trip abroad, during which leaders welcomed him as a salve to four years of Trump-era angst.
“It’s overwhelmingly in the interest of the United States of America to have a great relationship with NATO and with the EU,” Biden said. “I have a very different view than my predecessor did.”
Two months later, the same group of allies is now wondering what happened to that Joe Biden. The humiliating end to the war in Afghanistan has fanned lingering concerns over an “America First” foreign policy that some allies fear did not completely disappear with former President Donald Trump. And the chaotic fall of Kabul, which caught American officials off-guard and prompted a major scramble by the US and other countries to evacuate diplomats and Afghans who assisted the war efforts, badly undercut Biden’s promise to restore competence to American foreign relations.
The Taliban takeover has led to an uncertain fate for Afghan women and girls, leading to doubts over Biden’s repeated insistence – including this week – that human rights will be at the “center of our foreign policy.”
And some fear the pandemonium caused by the American withdrawal could provide an opening for countries like Russia and China – the very places Biden is hoping to refocus US foreign policy – to sow doubts about American reliability.
“China and Russia are having a field day saying: This is your partner?” said David Petraeus, the retired general who commanded forces in Afghanistan and served as CIA director, describing a message coming from Beijing and Moscow meant to undercut American global standing. “European leaders are questioning (the US), despite the successful EU summit and G7 meeting and all the rest of that, because many of them, if not all, wanted to stay.”
‘That’s not the way you treat your allies’
It has all unfolded with scant communication from Biden himself, who waited 48 hours after Kabul fell to speak with any foreign leader. He phoned Britain’s prime minister on Tuesday afternoon, and on Wednesday spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The White House said regular calls were going out from lower levels of government focused on logistical or operational matters. But other countries’ leaders had still found time to talk to each other – by Wednesday, Merkel had spoken to the leaders of Britain, France, Italy, Pakistan, Qatar and the United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees.
The messy crisis in Afghanistan has taught both Americans and leaders in foreign capitals some new things about the still-new president, whose four decades in public life had lent him an air of familiarity. Some of his most marked political characteristics, like empathy and optimism, have been replaced by a colder realpolitik. His promise of restoring competence to government has been undercut by scenes of chaos and confident predictions that turned out to be wrong.
“It’s a lack of communications, of honesty, with the American people and with allies around the world who are deeply disappointed with a Biden administration that they felt would be much more multilateral, especially on an issue where the allies have been fighting with the Americans for 20 years now,” said Ian Bremmer, director of the Eurasia Group. “The decision on how and when to leave was made unilaterally by the Americans, and that’s not the way you treat your allies, frankly.”
World leaders question Biden’s withdrawal execution
Already irked by the way Biden decided the war would end, leaders in countries who fought alongside the United States are now openly questioning how the withdrawal was executed.
“This is a particularly bitter development. Bitter, dramatic and terrible,” Merkel said during a press conference this week.
Behind the scenes, people familiar with the matter say she has been more critical of Biden’s decision, telling members of her party that “domestic political reasons” led him to decide on a withdrawal.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has walked a tightrope, hoping to maintain his close working relationship with Biden while acknowledging the anger from many in his party – and even within his own government – toward the United States’ withdrawal plan. In Parliament on Wednesday, the Conservative member who chairs the foreign affairs committee offered a particularly impassioned rebuke of Biden’s attempt to blame the situation in Afghanistan on the country’s defense forces.
“To see their commander in chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim they ran, is shameful,” said Tom Tugendhat, who served in Afghanistan. “This doesn’t need to be defeat, but at the moment it damn well feels like it.”
Following Johnson’s conversation with Biden, Downing Street said the prime minister stressed “the importance of not losing the gains made in Afghanistan over the last twenty years, of protecting ourselves against any emerging threat from terrorism and of continuing to support the people of Afghanistan.”
France’s Emmanuel Macron was already a vocal advocate for a European security policy that is less reliant upon the United States. He warned in an address on Monday that “Europe alone cannot assume the consequences of the current situation” and drew ire for saying France must “protect itself from a wave of migrants” from Afghanistan.
And Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who, like Macron, is facing reelection, has already weathered criticism from conservatives in his country for “abandoning” Afghans in the aftermath of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban. He hasn’t yet spoken with Biden, but during a press conference on Wednesday he sought to highlight his consultations with another American leader: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“(Clinton) shares our concern for Afghan women and girls,” he said, describing a phone call he held with Clinton this week. “She welcomed our efforts and urged Canada to continue our work.”
The US ‘created the conditions for the NATO decision’ to leave Afghanistan
Biden is set to face the G7 again next week during a virtual meeting that Britain, which is currently leading the group in line with its rotating presidency, scheduled as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated. Two other major global conferences are scheduled for the fall: the United Nations General Assembly, which the US is hoping will go mostly virtual, and the G20 in Rome, where Biden will again seek to convey American leadership abroad.
The President can still point to a long list of ways he has distinguished himself from his predecessor, from rejoining the Paris climate accord to fully embracing NATO, which Trump viewed skeptically. And Afghanistan, while currently the center of international attention, is hardly the only matter confronting Biden and his foreign counterparts.
But even in other areas, Biden has shown a willingness to disregard international input. The administration’s announcement Wednesday that booster doses of Covid-19 vaccine will be offered to all Americans this fall was in direct opposition to the World Health Organization’s call for all available doses to go to places where even first shots are lagging.
“Biden is President of the United States for the American people, but the level of indifference to allies and the average citizen outside the US is starting to really grate on many that have been there with the Americans for a very long time,” said Bremmer.
Other analysts have downplayed the risk to American standing posed by the Afghanistan situation.
“I think there’s this notion out there that somehow American credibility has been fundamentally undermined, or permanently undermined,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator and CNN global affairs analyst. “I don’t buy that, I really don’t. We invested 2,300 American lives, scores of thousands of Afghans, trillions of dollars, and we fought well … but it was time to depart. And I can’t imagine anyone, perhaps with the exception of the Ghani government, is going to hold us responsible over time for this departure.”
Biden and his team have argued repeatedly that leaving Afghanistan was never going to be easy or clean, but that doing so was still the right decision. And Biden has told Americans that he’ll accept responsibility for the fallout, even as he casts blame elsewhere.
Still, even before the Taliban took Kabul and the Afghan civilian government collapsed, American allies abroad privately griped they weren’t properly consulted before Biden announced he would withdraw US troops by September 11. Some also questioned how security could be maintained in the country when US troops leave, particularly at Kabul’s international airport and other diplomatic facilities.
During the NATO meeting in Brussels in mid-June, Biden claimed there was a “strong consensus” among leaders about his plans to withdraw. And a senior administration official told reporters there was “an incredible amount of warmth and unity around the entire agenda, including the ‘in-together-out-together’ aspect of the Afghanistan drawdown.”
But since then, officials have framed the decision as essentially a forced one by the United States.
“It was actually politically impossible for European allies to continue in Afghanistan, given the fact that the United States has decided to end its military mission,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday. “We went in together, and we adjust our presence together, and now we leave together after close consultations among all 30 allies.”
Pressed whether that meant the US decision had tied NATO’s hands, Stoltenberg was clear: “The US decision, of course, framed or created the conditions for the NATO decision.”