The first NATO summit of President Joe Biden’s administration — convened even as the resurgent Taliban encircled Afghan cities, no longer defended by U.S. and coalition forces — was a self-congratulatory affair. Donald Trump was out, and that was enough for the allied representatives to cheer.
“There was a real appetite for the nice words ... after the Trump years,” a Central European official recalled of the June 14 summit, acknowledging that, in order to satisfy that appetite, political leaders chose “to avoid the difficult discussions and especially to avoid talking about Afghanistan in a more critical view.”
The wages of contentment were clear two months later, when Taliban militants entered Kabul and U.S. troops returned to the city in a frenzy to secure the airport for one of the largest civilian evacuations in history. More than 82,000 people flew out of the city over the next 11 days, an impressive operation nonetheless haunted by the grim understanding that many Afghans — former U.S. government employees, women, journalists at risk of persecution, even the relatives of American citizens — will have to watch the last plane fly away, and then face the terrorists who barred them from the airport.
“The surprise moment that European capitals seem to have suffered is a bit awkward,” former NATO chief strategic policy analyst Stefanie Babst, who retired from that post in 2020, told the Washington Examiner. “I can only assume that everyone was in the summer mood, on autopilot, [satisfied] by the summit. ... Because NATO would have had time to plan for a more coordinated, less chaotic exit strategy. And this for some reason didn't happen.”
That failure has produced one of the most spectacular foreign policy embarrassments the United States has sustained since the fall of Saigon, just months after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed Biden’s inauguration as “a message of hope” for allies who felt alienated from Washington during Trump’s tenure. European officials, who followed the United States into Afghanistan, are more recriminatory — and doubly outraged to hear Biden argue the collapse of the Afghan military justifies the “hasty withdrawal” that disadvantaged the beleaguered Afghan forces.
“To see [the U.S. military’s] commander in chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran — it’s shameful,” senior British lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, said in a parliamentary debate. “Those who have never fought for the colors they fly should be careful about criticizing those who have.”
That anger is aggravated by disappointment. “We expected more empathy, strategy and wisdom from Biden,” former British ambassador Tom Fletcher wrote in an email to the Washington Examiner. “His messaging targeted Trump’s base, not the rest of the world, and not allies, past or (potential) future.”
Still, in a two-front public relations war, Biden seems to be having more success in the Indo-Pacific theater, where fear of China has heightened the appeal of cooperation between the U.S. and other regional players. “I don’t think the larger Indo-Pacific strategy dynamics are negatively impacted because I think the China factor is very, very loud and clear,” the Observer Research Foundation’s Raji Pillai, a former official with India’s National Security Council, told the Washington Examiner. “The U.S. has been there for 20 years, and it can’t be there forever, and reconstitution of Afghanistan’s society and economy is not a role to be played by the U.S. military.”
That analysis has some traction among European observers, despite their angst about the situation. “It’s a failure, what has happened; nobody is denying it,” former French Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud said. “The real question is why, actually, they have invested so much in Afghanistan” since “it was not necessary to spend $200 billion and to wage a 20-year war. Afghanistan is a test case of mission creep.”
Araud’s observation that Afghanistan is a “peripheral element” of U.S. grand strategy raises the possibility that the shame of the tactical defeat could pass, like a bad hangover, without doing any fundamental damage to American interests. And yet, the Afghanistan debacle reveals a weakness of Western foreign policy counsels: the tendency to plan for the best and trust that adversaries, unconstrained by Western force, will be persuaded to oblige.
“There’s a danger that we aren’t — across the government, obviously, there’s more than one agency involved in all this stuff — that we’re not actually doing a good job of being truthful about these situations,” a U.S. official acknowledged. “We’re probably the victims of being wealthy and powerful, and we can be a little bit sloppier, because our mistakes just don’t quite hurt us as much as we would if we were a lot less powerful.”
European officials don’t have the same luxury. Already, they are bracing for the prospect of an Afghan refugee crisis that could crest over the next several months. That impending humanitarian crisis will give Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hybrid war machine an easy opportunity to put pressure on the European Union. Putin’s embattled client, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, already has ferried thousands of Iraqis into Lithuania and other EU states, to punish the neighboring democracies for supporting Belarusian opposition figures.
How much more damage could they do if millions of Afghans try to make their own escape from the country? “They can take [advantage of] it so easily to make an impact in the populations of Central and Eastern Europe, and maybe even Western Europe,” the Central European official said. “They can use it, use the refugees, as a tool in the information war with Europe. And, it would be quite efficient to harm the unity of Western countries.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who faces reelection in April, is the most prominent possible casualty of that information war, and he seems determined not to suffer the political injuries that German Chancellor Angela Merkel sustained because of her permissive response to the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis.
“We must anticipate and protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows that would endanger those who use them and feed trafficking of all kinds,” Macron said in the early days of the evacuation effort. “Europe alone cannot bear the consequences of the current situation.”
Anger over Biden’s “unilateral decisions” has sparked a new round of chatter about whether European allies should seek “strategic autonomy” from the United States — just in time for a new round of debates over the strategic courses that NATO and the European Union must chart in this era of U.S. competition with China. Tugendhat, the senior British lawmaker, voiced his desire “to make sure that we are not dependent on a single ally, on the decision of a single leader,” in a rare sign that London and Paris share a similar discontentment with U.S. leadership.
That revival of Western European frustration with Washington comes just weeks after Biden disappointed the eastern flank of NATO by acquiescing to the construction of a controversial gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. The project is widely perceived as a Kremlin scheme to stop sending natural gas through Ukraine to Western Europe.
“A lot of allies look at Biden’s moves in Afghanistan and how his administration has undercut Ukraine and connect the dots,” said former State Department assistant secretary Wess Mitchell, who led the European and Eurasian Affairs bureau from 2017 to 2019 and played an advisory role for NATO after leaving the Trump administration. “If you are a friend of the U.S. in a vulnerable region, you have to be reexamining your assumptions about whether it will have your back in a crisis.”
Araud, for his part, maintained that Europeans remain confident that Biden would mobilize against any attack on a NATO member state, in keeping with the collective defense treaty obligation at the heart of the transatlantic alliance, even as Biden seems less willing to play “policeman of the world” on Europe’s behalf.
“The Europeans are in denial. It is, for them, so costly, and so risky, and so new to have what President Macron has called ‘strategic autonomy,’” said Araud, the retired French ambassador. “Under the protection of the U.S., the Europeans have been able to retreat from history, and to be worried about their social security, and to believe that the world was led by international law and goodwill.”
Babst, who wants to see European officials direct their energies into improving NATO cooperation and strategy, likewise doubts that the Western European displeasure with Biden will give rise to any practical steps to rebalance the transatlantic alliance.
“The trouble in general with this strategic autonomy is that this is also a hollow concept. ... Europe is still far from having developed a conceptual unified position on what is it that we want to do with regard to our competition,” she said. “In my country, in Germany, we hardly have something that I would call a strategic culture. Try to find somebody in Berlin to think long-term about China and Russia ... in the [legislative] as well as the executive branch, we have very little appetite for these larger strategic questions.”
The combination, in Europe, of strategic atrophy and recent acrimony could lead to a worst-of-all-worlds scenario for American interests. “I don't think this will necessarily lead to the Europeans doing more for their own security in the way the United States needs,” Mitchell suggested. “But unfortunately, it will produce greater distrust toward the United States and probably make it harder for America to elicit allied cooperation in the future.”
NATO’s evacuation effort might help diffuse some of that distrust. And Biden may find that a little humility could go a long way.
“If he is able to admit that this was not the best example of the cooperation, or the joint coordination, there is a much different attitude to the next issues we have to solve together,” the Central European official said. “I think European politicians can easily get over this.”
Assuming that’s true, the question remains: What would the transatlantic alliance, in a spirit of renewed camaraderie, do? “We need to be more practical and just to follow what’s really going on,” the Central European official added. “We need to discuss broader-term strategy ... and not be [so] optimistic in our predictions.”
Joel Gehrke is a foreign affairs reporter for the Washington Examiner.
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