America’s European Allies Criticize U.S. Afghan Withdrawal

U.S. President Joe Biden announced in April that the United States would end its military operations in Afghanistan by September 11, twenty years after the horrific terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people After the attacks, the United States, with the help of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, invaded Afghanistan to “deal with the folks [al-Qaeda and the Taliban] who attacked us on 9/11.” Very quickly, the United States was able drive the Taliban, who provided sanctuary for al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the horrific attacks, from power. The Taliban retreated to Pakistan, where they regrouped.

Over the next two decades, the United States’ aim in Afghanistan shifted from one of counterterrorism to nation-building. This change is exactly what President Biden took issue with. “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build,” he emphatically stated in a speech on July 8, confirming that fighting this war indefinitely was no longer in the United States’ interest. About a month after his announcement, as U.S. and allied troops were withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Taliban resurged, pummeling the Afghan military and security forces and causing the Afghan government to collapse. The abrupt withdrawal caused America’s European allies to question if Biden’s promise to restore America’s alliances and U.S. credibility, after four years of the Trump administration’s political and diplomatic mismanagement, were all for nothing.

The Security Side

Throughout the past few weeks, the United States’ European allies offered unprecedented condemnation on the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. For one, European leaders, especially those in Germany, fear a mass exodus of Afghan refugees headed toward Europe. As a result of the Taliban takeover, thousands of refugees fled the country. This new potential wave of Afghan refugees is reminiscent of the migrant crisis in 2015, which saw refugees, primarily from Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, make the dangerous voyage to claim asylum in Europe. European leaders also worry that a new surge of refugees will serve as a catalyst for the anti-immigrant far right and populist parties that have infected European politics for the last several years to become more prominent. Moreover, another concern for European leaders is the return of terrorism to Central Asia, which Western countries have worked to prevent over the past two decades now that the West will no longer maintain a significant presence in the region.

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European allies seem to be angered most over the lack of proper consultation by the Biden administration before withdrawing completely. In fact, leaders from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy – the United States’ closest friends in Europe – complained that there was more of a “diktat than conversation” as the U.S. made its final withdrawal decision. Many European officials feel a sense of betrayal, that the withdrawal was a political decision already seemingly made by the Biden administration without proper consultation with its NATO allies who fought alongside the United States throughout the entire war. The U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan presents a textbook example of this frustration, similar to lapses in U.S. actions in Libya, Syria, and Iraq. For the United States’ European allies, respect and the lack of equilibrium within the trans-Atlantic relationship are central concerns. This is fueling a long-held debate raging in Europe: should Europe, particularly NATO, provide more for its own security instead of simply relying on the United States for protection?

Is the U.S. For Real?

These concerns culminate, however, in perhaps Europe’s primary concern: Was Biden’s pledge to restore America’s alliances, particularly the trans-Atlantic relationship, and restore U.S. credibility in the world, insincere? European leaders express concern that Biden, as was true under the Trump administration, expects the Europeans to simply fall in line with U.S. policy decisions despite how they may affect Europe. In this confusion, the Europeans wonder if the United States is honest in the constant reaffirmations stemming from the Biden administration to show how central the trans-Atlantic alliance is to U.S. foreign policy. Now, NATO allies wonder if the recent debacle will impact alliance operations, causing the United States to take more of the lead while Europe is expected to fall in line. The United Kingdom, which made the greatest contribution to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, has been very vocal on this concern as well. In short, many European allies now question whether the United States is fit to the be the world leader and whether the United States really is back.

Conclusion

America’s European allies have been increasingly vocal and critical about their frustration about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Europeans fear for their security as a new wave of refugees and an increase of Islamist extremism on its periphery loom. Moreover, U.S. allies in Europe feel they were not properly consulted on the withdrawal of a war to which they contributed significantly. Above all, and perhaps the most damaging, this is just the latest episode causing U.S. European allies to question the strength and legitimacy of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Backgrounder: Mr. Biden Goes to Europe

On June 9, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. set off for a trip to Europe with stops in the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Switzerland. While in the United Kingdom, President Biden, an avowed Atlanticist, attended a Group of 7 (G-7) meeting on the first leg of the trip and also met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Then, he traveled to Brussels to meet with leaders from the other 29 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and then attended a summit with leaders from the European Union (EU), including the Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, and Ursula von der Leyen, who runs the European Commission. On the last day of the trip, President Biden met with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, in Geneva.

Credit: Flickr

Before boarding Air Force One, President Biden published an op ed in the New York Times, where he stated that “this trip is about realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.” In short, the purpose of his European trip was three-fold: show America’s European allies that the United States is back, get on the same page with the Europeans about China, and put guardrails on the U.S. relationship with Russia.  

The G-7 Meeting

President Biden’s meeting with the leaders of the G-7 countries in Cornwall, a small coastal town in the United Kingdom, was relatively fruitful. Number one on his agenda was getting the United States’ closest European allies (including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy), Canada, and Japan to agree on the threat that a rising China poses, particularly through its Belt and Road Initiative. The G-7 meeting was the first attempt by leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations to counter the Belt and Road Initiative, through which China lends and invests money to countries across Africa, Latin America, and now Europe. As a result, the G-7 leaders began discussions on designing a similar program called Build Back Better for the World.

Beyond direct concerns about China, the G-7 leaders announced several other initiatives. For one, the leaders of the G-7 committed to donating more than 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries. The G-7 leaders also pledged to cutting their collective carbon emissions in half by 2030 and agreed to imposing a minimum 15 percent corporate tax.

The Special Relationship

While in the United Kingdom, President Biden met with Prime Minister Johnson for their first in person get-together. In a meeting designed to “affirm the special relationship” between the United States and United Kingdom, the two leaders introduced an updated Atlantic Charter based off the one signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1941.

The two leaders revised the 80-year-old charter, originally created to ensure the “final destruction of the Nazi tyranny,” to include present day threats like cyberattacks, election interference, pandemics, and climate change. Above all, the meeting between the two leaders was to “redefine the Western alliance” in the face of a global ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies, led by China and Russia.

President Biden took the time to raise concerns over Northern Ireland. He worries that Prime Minister Johnson will destabilize the Good Friday peace agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland in his Brexit dealings. President Biden publicly asserted during his campaign that it was imperative that the Good Friday Agreement not “become a casualty” of Brexit.

Mr. Johnson, who is eager to show off the United Kingdom’s newly branded post-Brexit plans called Global Britain, has not so subtly made his hopes known for a trade deal with the United States as a way to calm the nerves of his citizens in post-Brexit Britain. However, President Biden echoed his former boss when he declared that a trade deal between the two countries would hinge on the prevention of a hard border between Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, an independent country which is still part of the EU.

NATO Summit

After the G-7 meeting, President Biden and his team traveled to Brussels for summits with leaders of NATO and the EU. At a pivotal point in alliance history, President Biden made sure to alleviate his NATO pals’ anxiety after four turbulent years of American leadership under the Trump administration.

In this vein, President Biden met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and held meetings with leaders of the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania to hear concerns about Russia’s threat to NATO members in Eastern and Central Europe. NATO, during this summit, targeted Russia due to its aggressive military activity and wargames along NATO’s borders. Moreover, for the first time in alliance history, NATO mentioned China in its final communique, calling the communist nation a “constant security challenge” and recognized that China is trying to weaken the global order.  

Perhaps most importantly, President Biden recommitted to NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on any member is an attack on all. “Article 5 we take as a sacred obligation,” he affirmed. He also acknowledged the apprehension of America’s NATO allies: “I want NATO to know America is here.” His attendance and actions at the NATO summit were intended to reassure NATO allies that the United States is, in fact, back.

Let’s Talk Turkey

While in Brussels for the NATO summit, President Biden met individually with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At a time when Turkey’s relationships with the United States and Europe are quite tense, President Erdogan has considerable leverage over his Western allies. However, President Erdogan’s continued authoritarian tendencies have not helped the situation, and neither have his efforts to balance relations with Russia, NATO’s archenemy, particularly over Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

Through the first few months of his administration, President Biden has “given [President] Erdogan the diplomatic cold shoulder.” Biden called the Turkish president for the first time in April, only to state that he was officially recognizing the 1915 slaughter of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire as genocide. This decision angered President Erdogan profoundly, calling the decision a “deep wound” in the relationship, and has reinforced his fear that the United States wants to replace him. However, besides publicly stating his frustration, President Erdogan did not retaliate, suggesting he wants to establish a good relationship with Mr. Biden and the United States.

As the two leaders met, the Biden administration is looking to sidestep the disagreements over the purchase of Russian S-400s, Turkey’s gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and the animosity between Turkey and Greece and Cyprus, both NATO allies. As Politico points out, there is “little chance the relationship collapses even if tensions remain high”; it looks like tensions will likely remain high for the next few years.

US-EU Summit

On his next stop of his European trip, President Biden attended a summit with EU leaders. During the summit, President Biden noted the importance of the United States’ relationship with both NATO and the EU and stressed the importance of collaboration, stating that working together was “the best answer to deal with these changes.” President Biden and the EU agreed to remove tariffs on goods like EU wine and US tobacco and spirits, imposed in a row over mutual frustration over subsidies for Boeing, a U.S. company, and its European rival, Airbus, ending a dispute over the aircraft subsidies that last for 17 years.

There is one area of disagreement between the US and the EU on trade. In 2018, the Trump administration arbitrarily placed tariffs on EU steel and aluminum, citing national security grounds. During the summit, the EU lifted the retaliatory tariffs on US steel and aluminum for six months, with hopes that the United States would reciprocate. However, President Biden did not commit to lifting the punitive tariffs. Despite this sensitive topic, President Biden went into the summit with EU leaders “seeking European support to defend Western liberal democracies in the face of a more assertive Russia and China” at a time when the to adversaries are working to undermine the Transatlantic alliance.  

A Worth Adversary

On his final stop in Geneva, Biden met with Russian President Putin. Relations between the United States and Russia are at their worst since the end of the Cold War and have only worsened in the first few months of the Biden administration. Russia’s significant cyberthreat, continued interference in U.S. and allied governments’ elections, a massive build up of forces along the Ukrainian border, and the horrendous treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny have been the main sources of poor relations.

President Biden requested the meeting, which was a bit surprising after he called Mr. Putin “a killer” earlier this year. But, as the administration pointed out, President Biden has no intention of resetting the U.S. relationship with Russia. Instead, analysts agree the purpose of the meeting was to avoid tensions with Russia in order to be able to concentrate on his ever-growing domestic agenda to-do list. In the meeting, it looks like Biden wanted to put guardrails on the relationship and to find areas of compromise, which is increasingly becoming a theme in Biden’s foreign policy.

The summit was not all symbols and speculation. In separate press conferences, President Biden said he raised the issue of Russia violating Mr. Navalny’s human rights as well as Ukraine and Belarus. Both countries referred to the summit as “constructive” and “positive,” and voiced their hopes of a better relationship, agreeing to restore ambassadors back to Washington and Moscow and discussed areas of cooperation and mutual interest, including Afghanistan and the Arctic. The summit was not meant to reset relations between the two countries, but it did seem to fulfill Biden’s initial purpose: making known to the Russian leader that the United States will not back down.

The Liberal World Order and the U.S. Alliance System: A Very Short History

After the Second World War ended in 1945, much of the world lay in ruins. After enduring a war that spanned nearly the entire globe, the loss of roughly 75 million people, and that cost trillions of dollars in damage, world leaders formed a system of international organizations and agreements to foster cooperation in the post-war world – the liberal international order. The liberal world order, which has governed much of international relations for more than 70 years, works to propagate democracy, market economies, the rule of law, and human rights.

As part of the liberal world order, the United States built a system of alliances in Europe and Asia, which have formed “the backbone of the liberal international order for more than 70 years.” The primary purpose of the alliance system was to maintain the balance of power on those continents against the United States’ Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. These efforts resulted in a series of formal treaty alliances based on collective defense.

U.S. Alliances in Europe

The European continent was nearly devastated after the Second World War. The United States, realizing that communism could potentially spill over into Europe, was instrumental in helping its Western European allies rebuild, particularly through the implementation of the Marshall Plan and the establishment of the Truman Doctrine. In this vein, in 1949, the United States, along with ten Western European countries and Canada, founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. This multilateral alliance was created to counter and combat the Soviet Union’s desire to spread communism throughout Europe and, to this day, serves as the center of European security.

The NATO alliance has endured quite a bit in its existence. NATO experienced “the transformation of the European security system from East-West confrontation to a Western-centric post-Cold War, during which NATO conducted its first shooting war in the Balkans [in the 1990s].” After that, NATO participated in the wars in Afghanistan and Libya, a conflict in Somalia, among other involvements, and increased its membership total nearly two-fold.

While several countries joined NATO between the early 1950s and late 1990s, much of NATO’s expansion took place in 1999 and 2004, when ten former Soviet satellite states joined the alliance. Since the revolutions of 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the desire of Central and Eastern European countries to join NATO increased dramatically.

While there were and remain some divisions between the NATO member states on expanding membership to these countries, NATO continued to expand. The idea behind this expansion was that membership would promote peace and stability in Europe, particularly among those in Central and Eastern Europe. Today, there are 30 NATO members states. Future expansion is constantly debated within the alliance and is the primary cause of tensions between the alliance and Russia. NATO recently announced that the alliance will be shifting its focus to the rise of China as well.

U.S. Alliances in Asia

Much like Europe, Asia was also ravaged by the Second World War. As a result, the United States established alliances with key partners in the region. In what is referred to as the hub-and-spokes system, the United States, through its bilateral alliances in Asia, had the same goal of countering the Soviet Union and its desire to spread communism.

For one, in 1952, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia signed a mutual defense treaty. Interestingly, New Zealand is no longer included in the formal treaty due to U.S. concerns over its nuclear policies in the 1980s. However, the United States and New Zealand remain close friends, just not formal allies. Australia is often referred to as one of the United States’ closest allies in Asia.

Moreover, the United States and Japan evolved from mortal enemies in the Second World War to close allies through the signing of the Treaty of Japan in 1951. Japan remains the United States’ closest ally in Asia. The United States also signed a mutual defense treaty with South Korea after the end of the Korean War in 1953, with a pledge that both sides would defend one another in the event of an attack.

The United States also has defense treaties with the Philippines and Thailand. The Philippines, formerly a U.S. territory after the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish American War in 1898, signed a treaty in 1951. The United States and Thailand were both signatories of the 1954 Manila Pact of the former Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Though the group disbanded in 1977, the Manila Pact outlines the U.S. security commitments to Thailand.

The United States and Taiwan were also formal allies when the U.S. signed a defense treaty with the Republic of China. This changed, however, when the United States officially recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole government in 1979. Consequently, there are no security guarantees. Yet, the United States sells arms to Taiwan, much to China’s consternation. While the United States no longer has formal alliances with Taiwan and New Zealand, it still maintains alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand with a renewed focus on the rise of China.

Conclusion

After the Second World War, with much of the world in ruins, world leaders established the liberal world order. A major part of this order was the United States’ alliance system, designed to maintain the balance of power in Europe and Asia and counter the Soviet Union, its primary adversary. Over the past seven decades, these alliances have formed the backbone of the liberal world order and stand strong today.

The Transatlantic Alliance

*This post is second in a series exploring what America’s allies in Europe can expect from the Biden administration.*

In line with his campaign promises and recent foreign policy speech, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is seeking to repair U.S. alliances, specifically those in Europe. In this effort, Biden reached out to the U.S.’s primary allies in Europe: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Biden recognizes that good relations with its European  allies are key to the U.S restoring its global leadership and confronting the global challenges facing both the U.S. and its European allies.

U.S.-European Relations

U.S.-European relations, which include the relationships between the United States and NATO, the European Union (EU), and bilateral relations with individual countries, have long been close, across both Republican and Democratic administrations. However, the Trump administration was extremely critical and often mistreated the United States’ European allies.

Credit: Mrowlinson

Much to Europe’s chagrin, Trump removed the United States from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and rebuffed multilateralism and participation in international organizations and treaties that the Europe has grown accustomed to seeing from its American partners. Trump also imposed tariffs on the EU. He labeled the organization as a “foe” and referred to NATO as “obsolete.” Worse of all, Europe questioned whether they could rely on their partner across the Atlantic.

Most European leaders were relieved, and even rejoiced, at the news that Biden won the November 2020 election. While most European leaders are approaching the U.S. with cautious optimism, they also acknowledge that relations will improve vastly. Biden has made improving relation with its European allies as a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Nevertheless, the two sides will not agree on every issue. In fact, there are likely several issues that will monopolize U.S.-European relations under the Biden administration.

Iran

In 2015, the United States, in concert with the P5+1, and Iran signed a deal designed to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. Trump withdrew the United States from this deal in 2018 for two reasons: lack of permanence in the deal and because the deal did not include Iran’s regional aggression, including ballistic missile development and support for militant groups around the region. Trump subsequently imposed harsh sanctions on Iran, angering his European allies.

Regrettably, Iran advanced its nuclear program since the U.S. withdrawal. As a result, Biden has noted his intention to rejoin the nuclear deal, but Europe recognizes it will not be quite as easy as that. The United States’ potential reentry into the deal will be an issue that occupies U.S.-European relations during the Biden administration.

China

The rise of China is another issue that will likely absorb both the United States and Europe’s attention over the next four years. The High Representative of the European Union recently noted that the United States and Europe are mostly aligned on China. “We are both liberal democracies and market economies, but that does not mean our interests always coincide. And that does not mean that we have to follow blindly what Americans decide to do, with respect to China.”

Most important for Europe is not being caught in the middle of a “trade battle” between the U.S. and China. And yet, the EU negotiated a new trade deal with China at the end of 2020, with the assumption that engaging with Beijing is the most effective means of altering its behavior.

The timing of the deal, however, frustrated the incoming Biden administration weeks away from taking office, hoping that Europe would consult with them first. But the EU went ahead with the deal anyway. Biden has promised to consult with allies on all matter of issues related to China, but this trade deal caused Europe and the U.S. to start off on a curious footing.

European Security

Europe’s participation in providing for its own security will also demand attention on both sides. European security was a major sticking point for the Trump administration, one that will likely carry over into the Biden administration. Trump was not the first U.S. president to question whether Europe should contribute more to its own security; this was a common sentiment of former presidents as well.

European leaders, led by President Macron, have begun calling for strategic autonomy, or what Europeans call “promoting greater European independence from the United States.” Most European leaders acknowledge that Europe could play a bigger role in defending itself instead of relying primarily on the United States. For one, divisions exist between the United States and Europe, and within Europe itself, on what signifies a major challenge, depending on the audience.

Biden, despite his promised efforts to improve U.S. alliances with its European partners, is expected to encourage Europe to assume more responsibility for its own security, though taking a less draconian approach than Trump. While Biden announced that the United States would not remove U.S. troops from Germany and will take a more rational position on this issue, the degree to which Europe defends itself without relying so much on the United States is one that will dominate U.S.-European relations over the coming years.

Conclusion

One of the foundational themes of Biden’s foreign policy is improving relations with U.S. allies, particularly those in Europe. While most European leaders are happy about Biden’s election and the United States’ return to a more traditional, familiar foreign policy, they are also approaching the U.S. with caution. Relations will be much more cooperative, friendly, and smooth during the Biden administration than over the last four years; however, the Iran nuclear deal, the rise of China, and European security will likely be the focal points of U.S.-European relations under the new administration.