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The Real Reason U.S. Allies Are Upset About Afghanistan

The anger is real—but anguished humanitarianism is just part of it.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
France's President Emmanuel Macron talks to U.S. President Joe Biden before a meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels on June 14, 2021.
France's President Emmanuel Macron talks to U.S. President Joe Biden before a meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels on June 14, 2021. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

My last column pushed back at the chorus of doomsayers who insist that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan—including the disorderly manner in which it played out—had done vast and lasting damage to America’s international position. No doubt some of these commentators genuinely believe their dire pronouncements, and the Islamic State-Khorasan attack on the Kabul airport is bound to intensify those feelings. Even so, I still find the hyperbole and over-the-top rhetoric remarkable. This week, I want to dig deeper and consider why so many people—and especially observers in Europe—appear to see this event as a pivotal moment.

In some cases, assume-the-worst analysis is easy to explain. It is entirely predictable that Republicans who oppose everything U.S. President Joe Biden is trying to accomplish are trying to milk the messy endgame for all the political capital it may be worth. It is equally unsurprising that unrepentant hard-liners and the many individuals who were directly involved in prosecuting (and losing) the war in Afghanistan are now defending their efforts and trying to pin the blame for the outcome on Biden alone. It might be more appropriate if those who repeatedly got this conflict wrong maintained a dignified silence, but that is clearly expecting too much of most VIP egos.

It is the commentary from others—and especially America’s NATO allies—that I find most interesting and somewhat harder to explain. I understand their resentment at not being consulted (or not having their advice heeded), although such complaints have been a recurring feature of alliance relations since the dawn of time. I can also understand those who are genuinely troubled by the humanitarian consequences, even if this outcome was to be expected no matter when or how the United States ultimately left. It is the anguished tone—at times bordering on hysteria—that I find more mystifying. British Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat declares the end of the war a “tragedy” that will only lead to more war and says the problem was the lack of patience—after 20 years!—as opposed to the lack of meaningful progress. Not to be outdone, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared the decision to end the war be “tragic, dangerous, unnecessary,” a phrase that more aptly describes the 2003 Iraq War that he helped bring about.

My last column pushed back at the chorus of doomsayers who insist that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan—including the disorderly manner in which it played out—had done vast and lasting damage to America’s international position. No doubt some of these commentators genuinely believe their dire pronouncements, and the Islamic State-Khorasan attack on the Kabul airport is bound to intensify those feelings. Even so, I still find the hyperbole and over-the-top rhetoric remarkable. This week, I want to dig deeper and consider why so many people—and especially observers in Europe—appear to see this event as a pivotal moment.

In some cases, assume-the-worst analysis is easy to explain. It is entirely predictable that Republicans who oppose everything U.S. President Joe Biden is trying to accomplish are trying to milk the messy endgame for all the political capital it may be worth. It is equally unsurprising that unrepentant hard-liners and the many individuals who were directly involved in prosecuting (and losing) the war in Afghanistan are now defending their efforts and trying to pin the blame for the outcome on Biden alone. It might be more appropriate if those who repeatedly got this conflict wrong maintained a dignified silence, but that is clearly expecting too much of most VIP egos.

It is the commentary from others—and especially America’s NATO allies—that I find most interesting and somewhat harder to explain. I understand their resentment at not being consulted (or not having their advice heeded), although such complaints have been a recurring feature of alliance relations since the dawn of time. I can also understand those who are genuinely troubled by the humanitarian consequences, even if this outcome was to be expected no matter when or how the United States ultimately left. It is the anguished tone—at times bordering on hysteria—that I find more mystifying. British Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat declares the end of the war a “tragedy” that will only lead to more war and says the problem was the lack of patience—after 20 years!—as opposed to the lack of meaningful progress. Not to be outdone, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared the decision to end the war be “tragic, dangerous, unnecessary,” a phrase that more aptly describes the 2003 Iraq War that he helped bring about.

They aren’t alone. The conservative candidate for the German chancellorship, Armin Laschet, calls the withdrawal “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding,” which suggests he has not read much about the Suez affair in 1956 or the Kosovo War in 1999. The Economist magazine has indulged in an uncharacteristic orgy of recrimination, with headlines declaring the “fiasco” to be a “grave blow to America’s standing” and a “turning-point.” French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly chided Biden by phone to show greater “moral responsibility,” conveniently ignoring the fact that France withdrew its own forces from Afghanistan way back in 2014, not to mention his speech from a week ago saying France needed to “protect itself from a wave of [Afghan] migrants.” I could go on, but you get the idea.

As noted, some of this hand-wringing is appropriate, insofar as the outcome in Afghanistan contains no small amount of human tragedy. That was also true of the war itself, however, in which some quarter-million Afghans and Pakistanis (71,000 of them civilians), also died. I suspect it also reflects European frustrations at their inability to do very much to shape events there now, as well as their disappointment that the well-intentioned but unrealistic effort at nation-building in Afghanistan has now come to an unhappy end.  But one expects public officials to think as well as feel, and sober thought is what seems to be in short supply at the moment.

If Europe’s political elites were as worried about Russia’s military power and political meddling as they often claim to be, then one might expect them to be pleased that the United States is finally extricating itself from the Afghan quagmire and will have more resources (and time) to devote to helping protect Europe. They might also look on America’s shouldering of most of the burden in Afghanistan for two decades not as evidence of impatience but rather as a sign of its staying power and willingness to go the extra mile even when the prospects are dim. Instead, they are treating this unhappy event as though it were the Battle of France in 1940.

So, what’s going on?

I can’t say for certain, but I suspect that many European concerns stem from their uncomfortable awareness that they aren’t as important to the United States as they used to be. Please note: I am not saying that America’s European allies are of no value, nor that they couldn’t be of considerable value to the United States in the future. I’m merely pointing out that Europe’s relative importance has declined sharply since the Soviet Union broke up. Europe was the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy for most of the 20th century and especially during the Cold War, but the collapse of communism, the rise of China and Asia, and the post-9/11 wars and counterterrorism campaigns shifted U.S. priorities elsewhere. Donald Trump was the first president to openly articulate these ideas, and now European elites fear that maybe this wasn’t just an aberration.

Moreover, for all the rhetoric about the “shared democratic values” that supposedly unite the two sides of the Atlantic, the real driving force behind deep U.S. involvement in European security issues has always been the balance of power. Concern for the balance of power led the United States into World War I and World War II, and it also explains why Washington kept large and powerful ground, air, and naval forces there throughout the Cold War. The United States did these things to ensure that Europe’s industrial might was not controlled by a single power—a European hegemon—an outcome that might have left the United States in a much less favorable position.

There is no potential hegemon in Europe today, and the only reason that Russia looks like a threat that might conceivably require an American response is Europe’s collective unwillingness to translate its vastly superior wealth and numbers into effective military power. And as some European leaders have suggested, what really bothers them about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is what it might reveal about America’s willingness to keep subsidizing allies who aren’t pulling their weight. And before you accuse me of channeling Trumpian bombast, remember that former President Barack Obama, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and countless other U.S. officials have said similar things on many prior occasions.

Furthermore, some Europeans know that the “shared values” narrative is harder to sell when some NATO members are heading in decidedly illiberal directions and when one can raise serious doubts about the health of American democracy, too. The bottom line: Smart Europeans know that NATO is resting on fragile foundations, and that makes them very nervous. From long habit they are reflexively reaching for the credibility card, in the hope of shaming Uncle Sam into offering both symbolic and tangible signs of reassurance.

There is another reason why Europeans may be deliberately exaggerating the significance of what just happened in Afghanistan. If you are a European who favors greater “strategic autonomy,” then highlighting America’s supposed unreliability is another useful card to play. In the words of former NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the outcome in Afghanistan means that Europe must “develop a capacity to stand on our own feet, militarily and politically,”and “seriously think about what to do for our own defense and spend the money to make that happen.” The danger, however, is that this ploy won’t work, and carping about America’s alleged fickleness will introduce even more rancor into trans-Atlantic relations and interfere with the much-needed effort to negotiate a better division of labor between Europe and the United States.

Europeans have reason to worry that instability on their periphery (to include Afghanistan) will expose them to new refugee flows and a somewhat greater risk of terrorism (dangers from which the United States is partly insulated). That’s a legitimate concern, but this issue also threatens to expose the tensions (a cynic would say the hypocrisy) at the heart of the European political project.

Since its founding, the European Union and its predecessors has justified the drive for an “ever deeper union” on the need to transcend nationalism. Its founding principles express a deep and profound commitment to universal liberal values of human rights. Although the EU is made up of member states where nationalism is still quite powerful, most of Europe’s ruling elites are deeply invested in the liberal principles on which the EU was founded. Among other things, these commitments explain why European elites helped drive the decision to try to transform Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy.

When push comes to shove, however, the nations of Europe turn out to be less committed to the universal ideals and eager to protect their particular national characters and ways of life. The refugee crisis of 2014 triggered a wave of right-wing populism and forced genuinely liberal politicians such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel to back away from their initial humanitarian impulses. I’m not passing judgment here: America’s own commitment to these supposedly universal liberal values tends to evaporate whenever refugees appear in large numbers on its shores or when some strategic ally commits human rights abuses. My point is that for mainstream European politicians, instability that might bring more migrants to its borders exposes inconsistences that they would prefer to keep buried; hence the anguished desire to convince Uncle Sam to put his finger back in the dike.

I suspect that much of the agonizing we are currently witnessing will dissipate once most foreigners and Afghans most at risk have been evacuated. Although there won’t be a happy ending to this story any time soon, I also hope the United States and others will do what they can to encourage less bad outcomes than one might anticipate. Even so, there is a downside to everyone involved in this 20-year enterprise turning the page and moving on. That downside, of course, is that we’ll once again fail to learn any useful lessons from the experience. As Mr. Bennet ruefully remarks to his daughter Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, reflecting on some of his own follies: “I am heartily ashamed of myself, Lizzy. But don’t despair, it’ll pass; and no doubt more quickly than it should.”

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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