President Biden arrived in office eight months ago vowing to fix America’s image on the world stage and repair relations with allies that he said were “belittled, undermined and in some cases abandoned” by President Trump.
“America is back,” proclaimed Mr. Biden, who even wrote a manifesto for the vaunted pages of Foreign Affairs magazine openly accusing Mr. Trump of pursuing a foreign policy that “emboldened our adversaries and squandered our leverage” in the global arena.
But the Biden administration‘s widely panned handling of the Afghanistan pullout over the past two months and his thoughts about working with the hard-line Islamist Taliban militants who conquered Kabul have prompted many traditional U.S. allies to question whether they want to continue following Washington’s lead as the preeminent enforcer of international security.
The chasm is most evident in Western Europe. Defense ministers from several of Washington’s closest allies, including Germany and France, spent much of last week openly discussing proposals for a pan-European defense force that would depend far less on the NATO-centered security paradigm dominated by the U.S.
Although such discussions have arisen for years, this summer’s events — after the sometimes traumatic trans-Atlantic clashes of the Trump years — have given more urgency to European criticisms of the U.S. as a global leader and a trustworthy partner on security.
Even “special” ally Britain has taken off the gloves. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said last month that Mr. Biden‘s hasty U.S. pullout from Afghanistan as the Taliban were advancing was based on an “imbecilic political slogan” about “ending forever wars.”
BBC Europe correspondent Mark Lowen wrote in an analysis that European leaders had begun revising what just a few months ago were positive expectations about Mr. Biden. Some are “thinking more about a future untethered to the [United States],” Mr. Lowen wrote beneath the headline “Afghanistan crisis: How Europe’s relationship with Joe Biden turned sour.”
French lawmaker Nathalie Loiseau, a former Europe minister for President Emmanuel Macron, put the disconnect among longtime allies more bluntly: “We lived a little bit the great illusion,” she said. “We thought America was back, while in fact, America withdraws.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is getting an early opportunity to test the post-Afghanistan waters. He traveled Wednesday to Germany as part of a diplomatic tour in the wake of the fall of Kabul. German officials said Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and top diplomats from some 20 other countries were holding a virtual meeting with Mr. Blinken to discuss the Afghanistan crisis and the road ahead.
At the core of the frustration in European capitals is a sense that U.S. allies were forced to follow along with the pullout from Afghanistan whether they agreed with it or not and were militarily powerless to fix what ultimately turned into a chaotic withdrawal and mass evacuation. Friction over the matter boiled late last month when Mr. Biden insisted on sticking to an Aug. 31 withdrawal date despite objections from European allies.
Britain and other European allies, many of whose troops followed American forces into Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago to deal with the plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, urged Mr. Biden to keep American forces at the Kabul airport longer because no country would be able to evacuate all their citizens and at-risk Afghan allies by Aug. 31, allied officials said.
In some ways, the debate predates the Trump and Biden presidencies. Many in Europe, especially France, have chafed at their military dependence on Washington. U.S. administrations of both parties have complained that NATO allies are not spending enough on their defense, but the U.S. also has been unsettled by talk of a Europe-only defense force that it fears could duplicate or serve as a rival to NATO.
The events in Afghanistan have given the debate new life. EU officials are preparing a “strategy document” due later this year to examine the feasibility of a European rapid entry force that could be deployed outside the NATO command structure.
“In my view, we do not need another such geopolitical event to grasp that the EU must strive for greater decision-making autonomy and greater capacity for action in the world,” European Council President Charles Michel said at a gathering last week in Slovenia of foreign and defense ministers of the 27-nation EU.
Such comments brought a familiar warning from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who told the British newspaper The Telegraph in an interview over the weekend: “I welcome more European efforts on defense, but that can never replace NATO and we need to make sure that Europe and North America band together. Any attempt to weaken the bond between North America and Europe will not only weaken NATO, it will divide Europe.”
Some European leaders had blamed the Trump administration for setting the course of the Afghanistan withdrawal with questionable deadlines and more broadly for challenging the U.S.-European alliance with heated rhetoric, as well as open support for far-right and EU-skeptical political movements on the continent.
Mr. Biden is now the focus of particularly biting criticism because of his mismanagement of the pullout.
A sense of betrayal is perhaps most noteworthy in Germany, which has spent billions of dollars to fund the Afghanistan reconstruction effort and lost dozens of soldiers in the war zone over the years. The Afghanistan mission marked the first time since World War II that German troops were deployed for a major overseas combat mission.
“I say this with a heavy heart and with horror over what is happening, but the early withdrawal was a serious and far-reaching miscalculation by the [Biden] administration,” Norbert Roettgen, the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign relations committee, said as the Taliban rolled into Kabul and chaos enveloped the Afghan capital‘s only international airport.
“This does fundamental damage to the political and moral credibility of the West,” he said, according to Politico, which noted that Mr. Roettgen is not a rhetorical flame thrower but rather a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union who has known Mr. Biden for decades.
Others went further. Armin Laschet, running as the CDU’s candidate to succeed Mrs. Merkel, called the withdrawal “the greatest debacle that NATO has experienced since its foundation.”
Assessing the damage
Despite all the hand-wringing, some regional experts caution against jumping to the conclusion that U.S.-European strategic relations have been permanently damaged.
“I do not believe that the handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan has caused irreparable damage to the trans-Atlantic alliance or U.S. relations with Europe,” said Jeffrey Rathke, a former high-level U.S. diplomat who heads the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
“There are certainly frictions and disappointments from many U.S. allies about the way the drawdown and withdrawal was decided by the Biden administration — little real consultation, decisions driven by U.S. considerations as the essential power there,” Mr. Rathke told The Washington Times. “Those will have a lasting effect, but they are not sufficient, in my view, to persuade Europeans that they should seek their fate without the U.S. security umbrella.
“More specifically, for very many U.S. allies, the mission in Afghanistan was one that they took on in significant measure as an expression of solidarity with the U.S. and support for the U.S. goals there,” he said. “There was not a European drive for a two-decade presence in Afghanistan that would continue for the foreseeable future. So the damage to the relationship is not fatal and can be repaired through the U.S. ongoing commitment to European security and some particular attention to improving consultation mechanisms on key international security questions.”
Still, few dispute that Mr. Biden faces more difficulty as he attempts to work with European allies on issues such as climate change, relations with China and Russia, and trade agreements.
“Expectations were very high when Joe Biden came in — probably too high, they were unrealistic,” former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt told the BBC.
“His ‘America is back’ suggested a golden age in our relations,” Mr. Bildt said. “But it didn’t happen, and there’s been a shift in a fairly short period of time. The complete lack of consultations over the withdrawal has left a scar.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.