President Joe Biden has spoken of his commitment to alliances. But he has acted unilaterally — especially in Afghanistan — leaving America’s friends uneasy and unsure of what they can count on from a White House they thought would be friendly. This Global Dispatch pieces together the concerns that have taken hold in capitals around the world days after the final U.S. soldier departed from Kabul to end America’s longest war.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
What’s Troubling Allies
On the surface, there’s little in common between Afghanistan and South Korea. One is a desperately poor, war-torn, landlocked nation; the other a modern, wealthy democracy surrounded by seas.
Yet, in many ways, it is Seoul, more than 3,000 miles from Kabul, that best reflects what some in Afghanistan are experiencing today. The departure of the final batch of U.S. troops from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on Monday night marked the end of America’s longest active war. But American soldiers have been in South Korea for seven decades, stationed as a deterrent against North Korea’s threats since the Korean War that — technically, at least — isn’t over.
As in Afghanistan, the U.S. has trained and led the South Korean military through this period. That this arrangement has continued, despite frequent criticism from some, is a testament to America’s unmatched global influence and to confidence shared by generations of South Korean leaders that they wouldn’t be abandoned.
That confidence, already shaken by former President Donald Trump’s threats to withdraw America’s security umbrella, is now creaking amid the aftershocks of the chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan. A ruling party of lawmakers in South Korea has demanded that the U.S. hand over military control on the peninsula so that the country is fully ready to take charge should Washington ever pull out. To be clear, Seoul didn’t expect the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. After all, the U.S. has no treaty commitment toward Afghanistan the way it does toward South Korea.
What’s troubling Seoul — and allies and friends of America around the world — is the seeming dissonance between Biden’s globalist words and his unilateral, and at times inward-looking, deeds. Afghanistan has raised uncomfortable questions about what Biden’s America will mean for a range of capitals, from London, Paris and Kyiv to Taipei, Tokyo and Seoul.
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At the NATO summit in June, Biden said the alliance “stands together,” that there was a “consensus” on Afghanistan, and that this shared position included “our diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian commitment to the Afghan people and our support for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.” How do those comments square with Biden’s move to decide on America’s withdrawal date from Afghanistan without consulting European allies? As it became apparent that Afghan security forces were collapsing before the Taliban and that it would be impossible to evacuate all Western nationals and Afghan friends by Aug. 31, Biden refused to reconsider that deadline despite pressure from G-7 allies.
British Conservative Party MP Tom Tugendhat, who served in Afghanistan, has spoken of a feeling of “abandonment” because of Biden’s unilateralism and has suggested that European NATO members reduce their dependence on America. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron has led efforts with Britain at the U.N. Security Council to push for “safe zones” in Afghanistan. The idea didn’t make it to the resolution that the 15-member body accepted, but the initiative points to the growing sense among European powers that they can’t just wait for the U.S. to take the lead.
And on Wednesday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, met Biden at the White House amid growing concerns in Kyiv over whether it can continue to count on American support in the face of the continuing war in the country’s east against Russia-backed militias. After all, Biden has relaxed sanctions that were hindering the progress of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany, which Ukraine sees as a direct threat to its energy sovereignty. Zelenskyy was a comedian before he became president, but none of this is a joke to Ukraine.
Call It Confusionism
Still, the loudest echoes from Afghanistan are being heard in East Asia. The confusing signals coming from Washington haven’t helped. Asked about concerns in the region amid the frenetic withdrawal from Kabul, Biden appeared to lump Taiwan with South Korea and Japan as nations that America would defend if attacked. It could have been a transformative moment — unlike Japan and South Korea, Taiwan is not a treaty ally nor is it fully recognized by Washington as a sovereign country. A formal commitment to its defense would have signaled a major shift.
It was not to be. It turns out Biden misspoke, and America isn’t promising to come to Taiwan’s rescue if China attacks. The result? With Beijing stepping up aggressive rhetoric and military moves aimed at Taiwan, Japan has decided that it needs to show more intent.
Like most nations, Japan doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in keeping with Beijing’s "One China" policy. Nations that have official ties with Taipei can’t have anything to do with Beijing. So, last week, Japan’s ruling party legislators held an unprecedented meeting on regional security with their counterparts from Taiwan.
Shouldn’t America be happy if other allies — whether Britain and France or Japan and South Korea — take the initiative over regional and global security for once? Only if America’s no longer interested in consistently leading.
And this isn’t just about China and Russia, and how they might feel emboldened by uncertainty among American allies. Without the security shield the U.S. offers them, there would be no incentive stopping Japan, South Korea or Germany from developing nuclear weapons or pursuing more adventurist military policies.
To be sure, pulling out of Afghanistan could in theory free up Biden and his team to focus on these other challenges — whether Ukraine or Taiwan — and the threats posed by Russia and China. But the loss of face in Kabul is unlikely to inspire confidence in America’s friends and allies. They’ve heard Biden repeatedly insist that “America’s back.” They’ll believe it when they see it.
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