On 19 February this year, in his first foreign policy speech in Munich, Germany, newly elected President Joe Biden declared that “America is back, the transatlantic alliance is back”, promising words aimed at marking a major change in tone compared to the four years in office of Donald Trump. Unfortunately, developments since that date suggest that there is more continuity between the two administrations than Biden seems to be willing to admit. Whether it is China, Iran, or Afghanistan, Biden has not significantly changed the course set by his predecessor.
Recent events only confirm this trend. The swift US withdrawal from Afghanistan, culminating in the sudden takeover of Kabul by the Taliban on August 16th, suggests that America might have undergone a fundamental change. It has no more appetite for being the world policeman. The spirit of the post-world-war-two period, of US international engagement and promotion of western values throughout the world, might be finally over. America is not falling back into 1930s isolationism, but it no longer sees itself as the centre of the world international community.
The change has taken place over the past few years, triggered by the most disruptive political development that America has experienced in decades: the presidency of Donald Trump. It was Trump who started the US pullout, both from Syria and Afghanistan.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, many democrats vowed to reverse Trump’s extreme isolationism, but once in office, has made few changes in the US policy towards China, Iran or Afghanistan. On Afghanistan, he stubbornly ignored his advisers and international allies and pursued a disorderly and ill-thought pullout. Biden has also refused to change course in America’s dealings with China – portrayed in much US press in almost hysterical cold-war-style tones – or Iran, where despite the rhetoric no progress whatsoever has been achieved on a resumption of the Iran nuclear deal.
This change in American attitude seems to be bipartisan. Both on the right and left of the political spectrum, the prevailing winds favour a modern isolationism. While Trump’s brand of extreme isolationism might still be an outlier in the US political landscape, more moderate forms are now prevalent among both Republicans and Democrats. This situation is not likely to change any time soon, despite Biden’s “America is back” reassurance. And even if a future US President were to seek to reverse course, Trump and Biden have inflicted long lasting, possibly irreparable damage to America’s international image.
To be clear, I am not implying that there is no difference between Biden and his predecessor. Under Biden the US has rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change, and put an end to Trump’s habit of publicly clashing with his partners at G7 or G20 summits. But Biden’s re-engagement is often limited to diplomatic niceties, or aimed at satisfying the most radical wing of his party. There is little indication that Biden is treating foreign policy with the same high level of priority as presidents Obama, Bush, or Clinton. And the fact that Biden has resumed multilateral diplomacy should not distract from the fact that on military issues, the change in attitude has been dramatic.
Partners in Europe and Asia will no longer be able to look at the US as a reliable partner in defense matters. For Europe, a militarily hesitant America might mean serious exposure to Russian military aggression. To Japan and Taiwan, it might suggest a weakened US resolve to intervene in the face of Chinese or North Korean aggression. Trump’s approach to the Iranian nuclear deal, which included punishing European companies dealing with Iran, has suggested to many Europeans that the EU should seek a greater international role for the euro as an international alternative to the US dollar.
All this risks strengthening the arguments of those in Europe and Asia seeking more independence in foreign and trade policy. But independence always entails the risk of unilateralism, which portends the risk of a fragmentation of the international order that has dominated the world since the end of the second world war.
Allies feel betrayed
This new American isolationism leaves the UK in a bad position at a crucial time in its history, having turned its back on Europe and seeking a new international profile. The Afghan debacle highlighted how totally reliant the UK is on US military support. It should remind even the most bloody-minded UK Brexiters that the past days of UK international dominance are over, in case they had forgotten the lesson of the Suez crisis of 1956. The image of Britain having to sheepishly follow the US moves when leaving Afghanistan will endure.
Europe is also shocked. The reversal will embolden politicians in France and elsewhere who want to step up European military and financial autonomy from the US. German “doves” such as conservative leader and potential future Chancellor Armin Laschet, who had been arguing that the Trump years were just an exception and that trusted Biden’s “America is back,” will have a harder time now defending that position.
Even in areas like the climate negotiations, the impact of Biden’s ill-judged international policy decisions might be felt. Trump caused consternation in Germany when he sought to block the Nord Stream gas pipeline to Russia, just weeks before its completion. The measure has climate implications since without it Germany would not be able to meet its pledges to phase out coal use by the 2030s. Although the Biden administration has reversed the Nord Stream boycott, it nonetheless shows the extent to which a rogue US President can influence climate and energy policies around the world.
The new climate of uncertainty created by the Trump-Biden foreign policy turnaround is likely to have negative impacts on global trade, and risks pushing China into an openly anty-Western attitude.