At the beginning of his presidency, Joe Biden vowed to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s.” Six months into his term, is America really back, as the president is fond of saying?
That is hardly the impression one gets in Afghanistan, where the American pullout has provided a new momentum to the Taliban’s insurgency, punctured only with occasional, half-hearted U.S. airstrikes. If the Taliban’s ascent to power is indeed just a matter of time, Biden’s presidency thus risks overseeing the most dramatic rollback of women’s rights in the world in a generation as well as the re-emergence of Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorist groups and as a place for regional power competition.
Afghanistan might be a distant place, but the lesson of both 9/11 and of Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis is that the West cannot insulate itself from consequences of instability and conflict elsewhere in the world. True, America cannot be everywhere. Yet, by default, America was in Afghanistan. As of late, U.S. presence, which provided a significant degree of stability, came at a reasonably low cost to American blood and treasure. The burden of proof should have been on the advocates of withdrawal to demonstrate in what ways the status quo was supposedly unsustainable and how giving up on Afghanistan was consistent with the broader agenda of America’s international re-engagement.
That, of course, is an argument that the administration never made. Eastern Europeans, too, have little reason to believe that America is back, particularly after the administration broke with a long-standing bipartisan consensus opposing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Greenlighting the deal is as much a favor to Vladimir Putin as it is to Angela Merkel. And with just weeks left in office, it is not obvious how exactly the German chancellor can be expected to reciprocate. The deal, meanwhile, is a blow to Ukraine—far outweighing value of the German donation of $175 million toward the country’s green energy sector or the value of an Oval Office meeting for President Volodymyr Zelensky. At best, it comes as a sharp disappointment to the most consistently pro-American countries in Europe—the Baltic states and Poland.
Both the Afghanistan withdrawal and the agreement on Nord Stream 2 made over the heads of those most affected by it will have consequences. The former signals that the United States is a fair-weather friend, whose commitments are durable only insofar as they carry tolerable political costs. The latter, meanwhile, makes the United States and Germany directly complicit in Putin’s future shenanigans in the region. The deal also erodes trust that Eastern Europeans have in both the United States and in Germany (and by extension in the EU). It may not be altogether surprising that Poland has already started flirting with deeper relations with China.
What is left of America’s comeback? Biden’s rhetoric on Cuba was laudable, but the administration has barely lifted a finger for ordinary Cubans. Then there is a hitherto fruitless pleading with Iran to return to a “stronger” version of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The sophisticated class is surely heartened by America’s rejoining of the Paris accord, though the practical consequences for decarbonization are unclear. Recall that U.S. emissions declined during much of Donald Trump‘s presidency for reasons unrelated to climate summitry. Meanwhile, many of the protectionist policies of the Trump era linger in place, hurting our allies and U.S. consumers alike, while the World Trade Organization remains paralyzed.
Finally, the administration’s posture on the challenge of the day, China, remain vague. The stagnating defense budget does not provide much reassurance to America’s Asian allies. Neither has there been much headway in the efforts to form an effective multilateral coalition of (predominantly) democracies against China. The heightened European alertness to the Chinese threat is a consequence of Beijing’s own ham-fistedness, including sanctioning European parliamentarians and researchers, rather than of anything the new administration has or has not done. Meanwhile, the self-serving European illusion that the economic relationship with China could be separated from the more contentious political issues lives, as exemplified by the recent video summit featuring China’s Xi Jinping, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Merkel. Given China’s role in electromobility, the EU’s monomania with climate change might easily foster a further deepening of ties between the two economies.
There is no question that the Trump years did real damage to America’s standing in the world. Americans of all political stripes should wish for the Biden presidency to succeed in repairing and updating the country’s global alliances. There is still a chance for the president to do more than just to manage, in a polite and civilized way, the steady decline of U.S. influence around the world. Extrapolating from these past six months, however, gives one little reason for optimism.