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Afghanistan withdrawal foments European distrust of America

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The abrupt American withdrawal from Afghanistan has raised new doubts about the reliability of the United States as an ally. Such worries suggest President Biden’s “America is Back” honeymoon may be ending abruptly. 

But next-generation European political leaders have a different worry. For some of them, it is not the abandonment of Afghanistan that raises questions about American trustworthiness; it is the possibility of an American failure to follow through on its climate change commitments. 

In the wake of the Afghanistan pullout, it did not take long for the handwringing over the future of the transatlantic alliance to begin. 

“When Biden says ‘America is back,’ many people will say, ‘Yes, America is back home,’” warned François Heisbourg, senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Not surprisingly, such sentiment has obliquely filtered into the ongoing German election debate. “We must strengthen Europe such that we never have to leave it up to Americans,” Armin Laschet, the Christian Democratic Union candidate for Chancellor Angela Merkel, said during a recent TV debate, echoing French President Emmanuel Macron’s calls for European strategic autonomy.

If trust in the United States has been undermined, its knock-on consequences in the face of shared U.S.-EU challenges could be severe. 

“Trust is the essential ingredient for talking together, let alone working together,” opined a young Bosnian left-of-center Social Democrat in the Parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in a recent set of not-for-attribution interviews I conducted for the German Marshall Fund with European parliamentarians under the age of 40. 

Fortunately for the future of transatlantic cooperation, these next-generation European leaders do not foresee a lasting impact of America’s decision to end its Afghanistan presence. 

Contrary to some Republican doomsaying about Afghanistan damaging President Biden’s standing among Europeans and thus undermining the image of the United States, young European politicians apparently are not blaming the president. 

“The overall positive public image that President Biden has here,” said a conservative Christian Democrat member of the Swedish Riksdag, “makes him able to do, or perhaps get away with, things that President Trump couldn’t do. If Trump were still president and the same thing happened in Afghanistan, people here would generally have a stronger reaction.”

“Whereas the opinion polls in the U.S. show a massive decline for Joe Biden,” observed a moderate Free Democratic Party member of the German Bundestag, “in Germany I have not sensed any blame on the U.S. president. Joe Biden is still perceived as the ‘savior of the U.S.-European relations’ after Trump.”   

But even saviors must live up to expectations.

“At the moment, expectations [of Biden] are very high,” said a young Green Party member of the Swedish Riksdag. “But Biden will have to deliver to keep that trust.”

And for many next-generation European political leaders, the most immediate test of American reliability is not Afghanistan but Washington’s action on climate change and what it can deliver at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

“While the development in Afghanistan is tragic, I don’t think it changes public trust in America,” the Swedish Christian Democrat contended. “If there is any single issue that does, it is the way the Biden administration handles climate change. When it comes to issues such as climate and international cooperation, America still has to rebuild trust.”

But there is doubt Washington can be relied upon as a climate partner. “The big issue is that one of the major parties in the U.S. does not acknowledge climate change as a problem,” observed a Moderate party Riksdag member. “Even if the Democrats are trustworthy, it is a problem that the other party is not.”  

“Trust doesn’t just depend on who’s the president,” asserted a left-of-center Social Democrat party member of the Bundestag. “We have to talk about the hearts and minds of citizens. Especially, do Americans agree with our points of view on fighting climate change and the ways of regulating things?” He has his doubts.

As politicians, these next-generation leaders are mindful that the next “hearts and minds” test is the 2022 U.S. congressional elections, with the possibility that both the Senate and House of Representatives could end up being controlled by “America First” Republicans. 

In the debate over the future reliability of the United States, young European political leaders have a generational sensibility attuned to the challenges of climate change. For them, their faith in America will not necessarily depend on what happened in Kabul, but what will happen in Glasgow. 

Bruce Stokes is director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Task Force. Follow him on Twitter @bruceestokes.

Tags Afghanistan evacuation Biden presidency Climate change Donald Trump Emmanuel Macron European Union Joe Biden US allies

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