In the wake of the chaotic evacuation of Europeans and Afghanis from Kabul airport, NATO allies are concerned about the reliability of the United States and the competence of its government. Adding to allied vexation is a feeling that Washington generally disdains Europe and undervalues the alliance.
It’s a sharp reversal of the opinions that dominated Europe when US President Joe Biden took office in January. Having replaced the histrionic and often hostile Donald Trump, sighs of relief were couched in confident terms that Biden had returned expertise to American foreign policy and clear-eyed “Adults were back in charge.”
In the wake of Biden’s ill-planned exit from Afghanistan, criticism was severe in media across the continent. “It’s a failure of the Western world and it’s a game changer for international relations,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat. “The EU must be able to intervene to protect our interests when the Americans don’t want to be involved.”
Allies lost 1,145 soldiers over 20 years while about 2,400 Americans died. Tens of thousands of Afghans were killed.
The first line of criticism focused on Biden’s timetable for pulling out and security preparations to evacuated thousands of potential refugees. His withdrawal decision was made in April but the mass evacuation began on August 14—seventeen days before the deadline he had firmly set for all US troops to exit. He also pulled out 2,500 US troops before the exodus got underway. Allies were baffled.
In the British parliament, Teresa May, a former Prime Minister, expressed European frustration in sarcastic tones: “Did we just think we had to follow the United States and on a wing and a prayer it would be all right?”
Biden made tactical decisions without discussions with allies. To many, it suggested disdain for NATO advice and forced them to send forces to Kabul hastily arrange evacuations of their own diplomats and allied Afghans. “Nobody asked us whether it was a good idea to leave that country in such a quick way,” remarked Johann Wadephul, a parliament leader in German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.
“The immediate feeling around this whole situation is that perhaps there should have been more consultation and more joint planning,” said Ireland’s David O’Sullivan, a former EU ambassador to the US.
Biden’s unilateral decision-making also highlighted European reliance on the US, not only for combat power, but logistics. NATO has “indisputable dependence on the United States,” said the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. Once Biden spoke, Europeans had no other choice but to scramble on American planes not only to get some of their own 7,000 soldiers out but also Afghan allies who had worked for them.
The Afghan finale has exacerbated a long running search among allies for a role after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, US diplomats suggested that the future lay in taking NATO military missions beyond European boundaries as a kind of global police force. The mantra was “Out of area or out of business,” in the words of the late Richard Holbrooke, a top US diplomat of the time.
The United Nations authorized NATO’s first venture outside alliance borders in 1994 when it asked it to bomb Serbian artillery aid fighter planes. In 1999, NATO again went to war with Serbia, this time without UN authorization. In the name of “humanitarian intervention” to inhibit ethnic cleansing of Muslims from Kosovo, NATO jets bombed Serb forces their and targets inside Serbia, including its capital Belgrade.
The September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington provided NATO to go to war in Asia defense of its chief member, the United States. Athe beginning of the war, Afghan rebel militias, with the help of US air power, overthrew Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers. Later, the Afghan and American forces chased al-Qaeda terrorists out of the country.
NATO forces arrived more than a year later for combat and then to take part in the disjointed effort to help reconstruct Afghanistan and build its military and governing capabilities.
That project came to a crashing end on August 31. Moving on, NATO must quickly decide its future role.
It can revert to its original mission: to defend Europe from Russia, rump successor of the Soviet Union. However, the main action is not within NATO’s borders but on its doorstep. Is NATO, with the US in the lead, really prepared to defend Ukraine from Moscow’s military intervention, reverse Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and someday make Ukraine an alliance member?
Hints may arrive today when Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky visits Biden today in Washington. He is concerned that Biden is appeasing Russia so to focus wholly on China. His evidence: Biden withdrew opposition to and sanctions on the Russia to Germany Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. Because Nord Steam 2 bypasses Ukraine, it is a benefit to Moscow, robs Kiev of $1.2 billion in yearly transit fees and means Moscow can cut off supplies to Ukraine without upsetting Western Europe.
Ukraine officials have noted Biden’s focus n corruption in Ukraine, which while concerning, strikes the as a diversion from the threat from the east.
Further afield, will NATO buy onto US plans to confront China in eastern Asia? Biden wants to confront China’s naval expansion off its coast. It’s not clear NATO would follow Biden on such a distant and dangerous venture. In June, French President Emmanuel Macron argued against a NATO hardline on China by reminding Biden that the group is an Atlantic, not Pacific, alliance.
NATO may simply prefer to stick to its home continent which some members complain has been deficient in controlling its southern Mediterranean frontier against uncontrolled migration; the Afghan withdrawal has raised concern about a refuge flood.
For now, confusion feeds second thought about the alliance and US leadership. “Part of the discord that we’re seeing now is probably also rooted in the sense of unease about how things are going to go on in the future” as well as “uncertainty in Europe about the future course of US foreign policy,” said Katharina Emschermann, a director at Berlin’s Hertie School post-graduate Center for International Security.
It’s yet not clear if the discord is a result of the lack of a US policy lodestar. The general consistency that marked much American policy during the Cold War was the need to contain the Soviet Union. The global footprint of the US muddles its foreign policy, which sometimes seems to value alliances, sometimes wants to go it alone, sometimes centers on military intervention, sometimes on nation-building and diplomacy.
Or perhaps the consternation reflects a hangover from the performance of America’s last two presidents: the bombastic and unpredictable Trump followed by an unsteady Biden.
Who wants to rely on a country that produces such leaders?