Disillusionment breeds frustration in US allies
Published by Chatham House as part of a series of short essays following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan
The lightning collapse of Afghanistan’s government and the chaotic evacuation from Kabul was a humiliating shock, but also shattered hopes the transatlantic partnership would ‘return to normal’ under Joe Biden’s presidency. It is not surprising Joe Biden’s handling of the withdrawal has led to recriminations in Washington but US allies are experiencing a further frustration. They and their citizens were takers – not makers – of the ‘allied’ endgame in Afghanistan, no matter how much they contributed and sacrificed to the effort over the years. There was no hiding their own lack of capacity to operate independently in the field and their powerlessness to shape decisions in Washington. Although Biden and his team treat America’s allies with far greater respect than his predecessor, a politer version of ‘America first’ remains the keystone of US foreign policy. The debacle in Kabul has dispelled several illusions. First, the West lost in Afghanistan and every coalition country has a part in that costly failure. To say repeated intelligence failures weakened the Afghanistan mission is too generous. Western governments never understood the context in which they were operating – right to the end. Second, the US – self-centered and erratic, but an indispensable partner – seems less interested in international leadership, even with a more internationalist president. The honeymoon glow of Biden’s spring visit to Europe for the G7 and NATO summits, where he received plaudits as the ‘anti-Trump’, has faded. Third, US allies talk a big game but lack the capacity to play a major geopolitical role on their own. But the malaise should not be overstated. Other issues will ultimately rise to the top of the agenda, and convergent interests and values will sustain transatlantic cooperation which has survived much greater strains. The Afghanistan episode has not been a ‘game-changer for international relations’ as European Union (EU) chief diplomat Josep Borrell asserted, but it has reminded everyone of painful realities they preferred not to face.