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Foreign Policy

America the Egocentric

Sep 03, 2021
  • Zhou Xiaoming

    Former Deputy Permanent Representative of China’s Mission to the UN Office in Geneva

U.S. President Joe Biden’s address to the nation about Afghanistan on Aug. 16 has generated considerable controversy at home and abroad. His defense of his decision to end America’s military misadventure was targeted by critics as an attempt to justify what amounts to a policy of abandonment. Meanwhile, Biden’s criticism of former president Donald Trump for striking a deal with the Taliban has been attacked as blame-shifting for the rushed and dangerous withdrawal, which was largely a problem of Biden’s own making.

There is one very important point he made, however, that no one seems to disagree with. About the objective of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been — preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.” 

Biden’s admission says a lot about the nature of U.S. adventurism in Afghanistan. From the very beginning, the mission was self-serving. It was to achieve U.S. security with no thought for the welfare of the Afghan people or the impact of military operations on them. In pursuing this objective, the U.S. engaged in a relentless campaign that led only to destruction, never building. 

For nearly two decades, the U.S. waged and sustained a war in a country more than 10,000 kilometers from its own soil — a war that devastated the Afghan economy and blighted the nation’s future. The U.S.-led war killed hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians and left nearly one in three Afghans homeless. It has impoverished the country, placing it in the bottom seventh on a list of more than 200 countries.

Afghanistan has the highest infant mortality in the world and a life expectancy of only 49.8 years. With an illiteracy rate of around 90 percent, the highest in Asia, the country is among the world’s 10 lowest for literacy. Afghans live in constant fear and despair. Such misfortune and misery are neither what they wanted nor what they deserved. These troubles were imposed on them for the sake of the U.S. security. Should the United States and, to a lesser extent, its allies, be held accountable for this human tragedy?

What happened in Afghan is the epitome of the U.S. approach to foreign policy. To protect its own interests, it has intervened in numerous other countries in recent years. From Iraq and Libya to Syria, the logic of U.S. intervention has not changed. And the consequences are always the same for local people: economic collapse, social upheaval and humanitarian crisis.

The self-centered approach of U.S. foreign policy extends to its allies as well. These days, politicians and ordinary people in the streets of Europe are complaining bitterly about Biden’s handling of U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. U.S. allies in European had followed the U.S. into Afghanistan in answer to the Article V mutual defense provision in the NATO charter, and paid a heavy price for involvement in America’s war on terror, including untold financial resources and the loss of hundreds of lives of their troops.

But the U.S. decision to exit Afghanistan was made without consulting European allies. In a strategic shift, the White House cast aside the interests of those allies, without consideration of the adverse impact of withdrawal on them. Consequently, the unilateral American decision has left European countries with a potential humanitarian and political crisis stemming from a large influx of refugees. There is fear in parts of Europe about being inundated by refugees from Afghanistan. After all, as analysts have pointed out, the U.S. policy on Syria created a refugee crisis for Europe, but not for the U.S.

Together with complaints over the U.S. move, a sense of dismay and betrayal is growing among U.S. allies in Europe. Europeans were shocked to learn from President Biden that the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was for nothing but America’s own sake. In addition, the irony has not been lost on them that the Biden administration had not even taken the trouble to entertain their concerns at the time it was wooing and pressuring them to join forces in confronting China, its archrival.

Still, the self-centered U.S. approach, as amply demonstrated by its exit from Afghanistan, should have come as no surprise to anyone. It is typical American foreign policy. As has been the White House’s practice, particularly during the Trump era, the interests of the U.S. always take precedence over those of other countries, including those of its allies. When the interests of the U.S. and those of allies diverge, Washington does not hesitate to sacrifice the latter. In fact, Trump’s “America first” doctrine is well entrenched and going strong in the U.S. today. Time and again, the Biden administration has emphasized that U.S. foreign policy is intended to serve its domestic agenda. Given America’s preoccupation with its own interest, one might suspect that no amount of pleading or persuasion by the Europeans allies would have been able to make the occupant of the White House change his mind.

Commentators liken U.S. allies to a man’s jacket: It will be kept close to the body of the man when needed, but be put away when considered unnecessary. Its value depends upon its utility to the man at a particular moment in time. Worse still, allies are often made scapegoats of U.S. policy. The U.S. expects and pressures allies to toe the line, which often requires them to make sacrifices. In its ambitions to maintain its global dominance, Washington is attempting to rally its allies to stop China in its tracks. However, jumping onto America’s anti-China bandwagon will only drag Europe down. Not coincidentally, the European Union is now talking more earnestly about strategic sovereignty. 

The world at large owes thanks of sorts to Biden for being straight about the aim of the America’s intervention in Afghanistan. His revelation serves as yet another wake-up call for all of us. It would not be an exaggeration to say that what is true about American policy in Afghanistan is also true about American foreign policy in general. Alas, Uncle Sam will always be for himself, always egocentric.

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