In the wake of the chaotic evacuation of Europeans and Afghans from Kabul airport, NATO allies worry about the reliability of the United States and the competence of President Joe Biden’s government.
Adding to widespread vexation is the feeling that Washington generally disdains Europe and undervalues the alliance.
It marks a sharp reversal of European opinion since Biden took office in January. Having replaced the histrionic and often hostile Donald Trump, European leaders expressed confidence that a steady and expert hand had returned to guide US foreign policy. “Adults were back in charge” was a common refrain.
But after Biden’s ill-planned exit from Afghanistan, criticism exploded across the continent. “It’s a failure of the Western world and it’s a game-changer for international relations,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat. “The EU must be able to intervene to protect our interests when the Americans don’t want to be involved.”
Allies lost 1,145 soldiers over 20 years while about 2,400 Americans died. Tens of thousands of Afghans were killed.
The first line of criticism focused on Biden’s timetable for pulling out and security preparations for the evacuation of thousands of potential refugees.
His withdrawal decision was made in April, but the mass evacuation began only on August 14—17 days before the deadline he had firmly set for all US troops to exit. He also pulled out 2,500 US troops before the exodus got underway then had to send 5,000 back in to handle the crisis.
All the while, Biden expressed confidence that Afghanistan would not collapse to the Taliban anytime soon. Allies were baffled.
In the British parliament, Teresa May, a former prime minister, expressed European frustration in sarcastic tones: “Did we just think we had to follow the United States and on a wing and a prayer it would be all right?”
Biden made tactical decisions without discussions with allies. To many, it suggested contempt for NATO counsel. It also forced them to hastily send their own forces into Kabul to arrange their own evacuations of diplomats and allied Afghans.
“Nobody asked us whether it was a good idea to leave that country in such a quick way,” remarked Johann Wadephul, a parliament leader in German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.
“The immediate feeling around this whole situation is that perhaps there should have been more consultation and more joint planning,” said Ireland’s David O’Sullivan, a former EU ambassador to the US.
Biden’s unilateral decision-making highlighted Europe’s debilitating reliance on the US, not only for combat power, but logistics.
Once Biden spoke, Europeans had no other choice but to scramble on American planes not only to get some of their own 7,000 soldiers out, but also Afghan allies who had worked for them.
NATO has “indisputable dependence on the United States,” declared the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in a report on the situation.
The Afghan finale renewed a long search for a compelling allied role following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, US diplomats suggested that the future lay in NATO embarking on missions beyond European boundaries as a kind of global police force.
The mantra was “out of area or out of business,” in the words of the late Richard Holbrooke, a top US diplomat of the time.
The United Nations authorized NATO’s first venture outside the alliance’s bounds in 1994, when the global body asked it to bomb Serbian artillery and fighter planes.
In 1999, NATO went to war with Serbia again, this time without UN authorization. In the name of a “humanitarian intervention” to inhibit ethnic cleansing of Muslims from Kosovo, NATO jets bombed Serb forces inside the breakaway region and targeted Serbia, including its capital Belgrade.
The September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington provided NATO the occasion to go to war in Asia in defense of its chief member, the US. At the war’s beginning, Afghan rebel militias, with the help of US airpower, overthrew Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers.
Later, Afghan and American forces chased al-Qaeda terrorists out of the country. NATO forces arrived on the scene more than a year later both for combat and to take part in the disjointed effort to reconstruct Afghanistan and build its military and governing capabilities.
That project came to a crashing end on August 31.
For a future NATO role, one option is to revert to its original mission: to defend Europe from Russia, the aggressive rump successor of the Soviet Union. But even that mission raises issues of NATO’s reach: The main action is not within NATO’s borders, but on its doorstep in Ukraine.
Is NATO, with the US presumably in the lead, prepared to defend Ukraine from Russia’s military intervention? It hasn’t so far. Will it reverse Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and someday make Ukraine an alliance member? Neither seems on the horizon.
Prospective hints may emerge when Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky visits Biden in Washington on September 1. He is concerned that Biden is bent on appeasing Russia so to focus wholly on China.
His evidence: Biden withdrew opposition to and sanctions on companies building the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. Because the pipeline bypasses Ukraine, it robs Kiev of $1.2 billion in yearly transit fees and means Moscow can cut off supplies to Ukraine without upsetting Western Europe.
Biden once called the pipeline a threat to European security but once in office backed off at Germany’s insistence. Ukraine officials have ruefully noted Biden’s focus on corruption in Ukraine, which though an important issue, strikes them as a way to divert attention from the military threat to the east.
Further afield, Biden wants NATO to buy into US plans to confront China in East Asia and impede its naval expansion in nearby waters.
It’s not clear that NATO, either fully or in part, would follow Biden on such a distant and potentially fraught venture. In June, French President Emmanuel Macron argued against a NATO hardline on China. He reminded Biden that the group is an Atlantic, not Pacific, alliance.
NATO may simply prefer to stick to its home continent. Some members complain NATO has been deficient in controlling Europe’s southern Mediterranean frontier against uncontrolled migration. The Afghan withdrawal has further raised concerns about a new refugee flood.
It’s all feeding second thoughts about the alliance and US leadership. “Part of the discord that we’re seeing now is probably also rooted in the sense of unease about how things are going to go on in the future” as well as “uncertainty in Europe about the future course of US foreign policy,” said Katharina Emschermann, a director at Berlin’s Hertie School post-graduate Center for International Security.
It’s not clear yet if the uncertainty also results from the kind of US policy lodestar that guided much American policy during the Cold War, i.e. the need to contain the Soviet Union.
The post-Cold War expansion of US global policies sometimes seems to value alliances, and sometimes wants to go it alone. Its policy tools oscillate between promiscuous military interventions and under-resourced nation-building and diplomacy.
Or perhaps the consternation reflects a hangover from the performance of America’s last two presidents: the bombastic and unpredictable Trump, followed by an unsteady Biden. In a time of bewilderment, a country that produces such leaders is not instilling confidence in Europe.