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Afghanistan Debacle, Transatlantic Wedge

Oct 02, 2021
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

During the White House tenure of Donald Trump, the U.S. made significant adjustments to its transatlantic policy, leaving Europe to struggle with the changes. The two sides had big differences on economy, trade, security and global governance, precipitating moments of grave turbulence. After the inauguration of Joe Biden, America’s European policy gradually returned to normal, ushering in some constructive changes in transatlantic relations. Now it seems the U.S. and Europe are embracing on a new honeymoon.

But all is not love and kisses. A honeymoon does not necessarily mean that the structural dilemma posed by the alliance has disappeared. It boils down to this:  The U.S. intends to maintain its global hegemony by relying on the alliance when alliance is useful, even as it simultaneously refuses to bear much of the cost. For its part, Europe cannot accept dual U.S. strategic goals — both hegemony and alliance — and faces a dilemma posed by the choice between strategic autonomy and strategic dependence.

For Biden, the contradiction inherent in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is obvious. It underlined and amplified the unsolvable predicament of the U.S.-Europe alliance and the latest tussle with France over the new Australia-UK-U.S. alliance. The Afghanistan situation, followed by AUKUS, has only exacerbated Europe’s frustration, dealing a serious blow to transatlantic relations during the Biden era. America’s Afghanistan policies have been a disappointment in European strategic circles, leaving people feeling abandoned.

This can be seen in three main aspects:

First, Europe is dissatisfied with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan without consulting fully with NATO allies. The Trump administration’s contacts with the Taliban and the Biden administration’s decision on the withdrawal date were both made unilaterally, ignoring Europe’s feelings and violating NATO’s principle of “in together, out together” in Afghan affairs. NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time to intervene in Afghanistan, and America’s European allies have invested significan resources to this end. An important economic aid program, for example, amounted to 17.2 billion euros ($20.3 billion).

Second, Europe believes the withdrawal signals a possible trend in which the U.S. neglects its security commitments on the continent. The hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops has led to a rapid resurgence of the Taliban, and the turmoil will bring more security challenges to Europe, including terrorism, large-scale refugee flows and drug trafficking. The European Union will face various pressures on crisis prevention, overall stability and peacekeeping operations.

Some voices in European strategic circles hold that the withdrawal will only dump the crisis on Europe and that U.S. involvement in European security will change from contempt under Trump to incompetence under Biden. The U.S. has not completely abandoned Trump’s “America first” policy, and Europe overestimated Biden’s promise of new American engagement.

Third, Europe worries that the U.S. strategic shift eastward will harm its interests. The U.S. began its Asia-Pacific rebalancing under Barack Obama, followed by the Indo-Pacific strategy starting with Donald Trump. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan also highlights the country’s competition with Russia and China and its eastward shift. European strategists believe the withdrawal once again proves that the U.S. is determined to focus on Asia and fears that abandoning Europe too soon will have a negative impact. Therefore, Europe sees a need to accelerate its moves toward strategic autonomy — that is, to enhance its ability to intervene in areas involving its own interests and reduce its dependence on the U.S.

For Europe, America’s irresponsible withdrawal has forced it to prioritize preventing the all-out eruption of a major refugee crisis. The EU expects that the number of refugees in its territory will exceed that of Syria, which will bring intense pressure. Also, it worries that the next wave of refugees will again impact the EU’s solidarity, create opportunities for far-right radicals and disrupt the fragile political balance of Europe. In this light, preventing a refugee crisis will become the EU’s priority.

This backdrop has hindered what had been a thaw in transatlantic relations. Biden went to great lengths to repair those relations and has a mild attitude regarding bilateral economic and trade conflicts. The thawing trend in U.S.-Europe relations was apparent before it was ended by the Afghan crisis. Several points bear elaboration:

First, the operation in Afghanistan was the only time in NATO’s history that the collective defense provision was invoked. Britain, Germany and other European countries have invested heavily in Afghanistan, which in turn has great significance to Europe. The failure in Afghanistan will not only undermine public support for Europe’s future involvement in U.S.-led interventions but will also increase the EU’s skepticism about NATO’s functions beyond defense. It will be harder now for the U.S. to gain political support for NATO reform.

Second, the withdrawal reflects the fact that the U.S. has become increasingly concerned with its self-interest and has made fewer concessions to its European allies when facing challenges of relatively declining national strength and deepening domestic divisions. It is difficult for the U.S. to make substantive concessions in conflicts over economy, trade, science, technology and other fields.

Third, the withdrawal left Afghanistan unattended, showcasing the cold and cruel part of the U.S. realism in its foreign policy. Democracy is America’s tool of choice, so the Afghanistan experience will only weaken U.S. credibility in Europe and increase European concerns about supporting the U.S. in hosting the Summit for Democracy.

More important, the actions of the Biden administration have sped up the EU’s pursuit of strategic autonomy. The Afghan crisis and the AUKUS arrangement once again have proved that while the U.S. has not wavered in its commitment to NATO, its shift of strategic resources to the Indo-Pacific region is inevitable. The U.S. is no longer willing to be too involved in the surrounding regions of Europe, such as the Middle East and North Africa.

The Afghan crisis also exposed Europe’s deep dependence on the U.S. when it comes to security. After the U.S. announced that it would withdraw its troops, the UK attempted to organize a multinational coalition to retain a small military force to stabilize the situation. Yet it received little response. Moreover, Europe could not evacuate its nationals without military help from the United States. The strategic dependence on the U.S. requires the EU to seek further strategic autonomy and step up its capacity for self-protection.

In short, the withdrawal is another wake-up call to Europe. The situation in Afghanistan proved that Europe lacks strategic vision and is dangerously dependent on the United States, which may spur a new round of profound adjustment in transatlantic relations.

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