US in desperate need of a foreign policy renewal

President Biden speaks on Thursday's bombings in Kabul
Getty Images

The Biden administration promised to return American foreign policy to reliability and international leadership after the disruptions of the Trump years. Yet its egregious mismanagement of the exit from Afghanistan has damaged America’s global standing and undercut the credibility of three of the administration’s foreign policy planks.

President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were supposed to repair trans-Atlantic relations by reassuring our European allies, give priority to human rights in all decisions and counter Chinese ambitions. The deeply flawed execution of the Afghanistan withdrawal undermines all those aspirations and leaves the Biden foreign policy vision in shambles. The diplomatic team that was supposed to bring professionalism has left America rudderless. 

The Trump administration stood accused of straining the Atlantic alliance. European allies feared that it would prioritize unilateral decisions over multilateral consultation. Yet nothing during the Trump years compares with the unilateral high-handedness with which Washington pulled the plug on the NATO operation in Afghanistan. Alliance partners who rallied to the side of the U.S. after 9/11 have been left out in the cold.

As the chaos of the past weeks unfolded, Biden hid in Camp David and spoke with no European leader, until public criticism shamed him into a call to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. This diplomatic indolence has had repercussions across the continent, where allies are squarely facing American unilateralism, but now from a Democratic administration.

The notion that Trump’s often criticized unpredictability was only an episode and that the Democrats would return trans-Atlantic cooperation to professional normalcy is no longer tenable. Biden has achieved what critics projected onto Trump, a Washington uninterested in European concerns.  

The Biden foreign policy leadership group insisted that it would give priority to human rights issues. This boast was intended as a contrast to its predecessor, although it was in fact the Trump administration that had first pointed out China’s massive human rights violations, while more generally bringing the discussion of rights back into focus, correcting the relative disregard for the topic during the Obama years.

But in launching the Afghanistan debacle, the Biden administration evidently gave no advance thought to the fate of Afghans who would be subject to Taliban violence, with no rights to free speech, fair trials or humane treatment, nor even access to that basic human right, the right to leave one’s country. Washington might have at least set expectations on these points, but instead has issued only the weakest of statements. 

Nor were any provisions made for Afghan women, especially those women who during the past 20 years have benefitted from education and commenced professional lives. They are now at the mercy of the new rulers in Kabul.

The failure of the Biden team to anticipate this catastrophe is particularly ironic in light of its critique of the Trump administration. Rights advocacy in the Trump era – so the Democratic critics say – placed too much emphasis on religious freedom and gave insufficient attention to women’s rights. Yet watching the tragedy in Afghanistan unfold, one cannot imagine policies less attentive to the plight of women than what the Biden administration has done: next to nothing. 

But if one overlooks Biden’s clumsy unilateralism, and if one writes off Blinken’s pieties about human rights as ultimately insincere, then one might still find a hard-core realist argument behind the administration’s agenda. The Afghanistan exit, as messy as it has been, at least contributes to an American strategy to counter China’s rise, enabling a pivot to East Asia and the Indo-Pacific. 

In principle, this perspective is not wrong. In practice, it leaves open the question as to the strategic character of American presence elsewhere in the world. In the Afghan case, however, the execution of the much vaunted pivot has been self-defeating. With the purported goal of containing China, the U.S. has now lost access to a country that borders strategically on China’s backdoor. It has also lost the one major military airbase between Europe and Japan.  

Furthermore, as much as Washington intends to develop a strategic partnership with India, it has empowered India’s adversary, Pakistan, via the Taliban victory. The diplomatic winners at this point are China and Russia, and the Biden administration has nothing to offer as a response. With no alternative strategy, whether diplomatic or military, the events in Afghanistan cannot be seen as anything but a net loss in the competition with China.   

All the core tenets of Biden’s foreign policy have collapsed. The manner in which his administration carried out the end of the Afghanistan war undermined its pretense toward Atlanticist multilateralism, disregarded human rights and weakened our posture toward China.

And now? The U.S. is in desperate need of a foreign policy renewal. That will likely require a different leadership that can bring the competence that is sorely lacking. National interest cannot wait three-and-a-half more years.  

Russell A. Berman directs the Working Group on the Middle East and the Islamic World at the Hoover Institution. The opinions here are his own. 

Tags Afghan Taliban Afghanistan Afghanistan War Afghanistan–United States relations Antony Blinken Antony Blinken Biden International Security Assistance Force Joe Biden Presidency of Donald Trump Presidency of Joe Biden War in Afghanistan

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