In the aftermath of the 2020 Presidential election, the world awaited the promise of a return to normalcy after four tumultuous years of President Trump. The Biden-Harris ticket was the restoration of the Washington consensus against the Trump revolution. America would not come first at the expense of her allies and the US would once again lead the west against the major threats we see today, mainly, climate change and the rise of China.
At first, President Biden talked a good game, proclaiming “America is back” at the Munich Security Conference in February. But at every point, Joe Biden has failed to steady the ship and has overseen the decline of the US as the world’s hegemon. On climate change, Biden is failing to live up to his ambitious rhetoric, the special relationship is becoming increasingly ordinary, and the Afghanistan withdrawal has been an egregious failure. The President has not met the expectations of nations who have looked to the White House for leadership ever since the end of the Second World War.
The Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan, touted by Biden as ‘highly unlikely’ just weeks ago, was completed on Sunday night. As US military aircraft scrambled to rescue US citizens, people stormed Kabal airport, hanging onto planes as they took off, forcing soldiers to disperse crowds with warning shots. The utter capitulation of the Afghan army, trained and equipped over the last 20 years, suggests either the US miscalculated the strength of the national government, or they knew a Taliban takeover was inevitable, and believed it would be better to cut their losses now in time for the tactless September 11th withdrawal date.
In short, America has washed their hands of Afghanistan, leaving women to suffer at the hands of radical Islam and allowing the destruction of the dream of a functioning democracy in the Middle East.
And what has Biden said? As yet, nothing. Meanwhile, China is ready to deepen “friendly and cooperative” relations with Afghanistan, a Chinese government spokeswoman told Associated Free Press. The Russians are also racing to meet the new regime leaders with meetings due on Tuesday and Iran has greeted the US withdrawal as an ‘opportunity’ for peace. America’s enemies are revelling in the fallout from the withdrawal, and this will have far reaching implications on other spheres of US influence.
The images we see in Kabul will forever symbolise the death of Pax Americana, but it also alludes to a failure of leadership in Washington across the board. Not only has the US caused chaos and destruction in the middle east, but they are also failing to lead by example on climate change, despite the current administration ridiculing Trump for his inaction and denialism. In another setback for White House- Downing Street relations, Boris Johnson is concerned the US’s disaster in Afghanistan will set the tone at the much-anticipated COP26 conference on climate change. He wants developed nations to commit to $100 Billion to fund green projects across the globe but the US is reluctant to make a commitment to reach the target. Without increased US contributions, the Boris will fail to achieve his flagship policy.
The deterioration of the Special Relationship is nothing new. Biden has frequently waded in on the Northern Ireland Protocol issue during UK-EU negotiations. Reports suggest Biden and Johnson have had two calls in the past seven months, whereas Trump and Johnson had seven over the same period. To top it off, it’s unclear if the Prime Minister will be invited to the White House after the U.N. General Assembly. Whether relations can be salvaged is unknown, but at a time when the US needs allies, it is doing a pretty good job of parring its main ally away.
Biden has arguably followed the Trumpian policy of ‘America First’, but with more devastating effects. It suggests that no matter who takes the White House, the rest of the western world, the UK and Europe primarily, must be ready to lead without the backing of US money and military power. The US left a power vacuum in Afghanistan, but their miserable defeat has also left a power vacuum at the head of the table of western liberal democracies.
The UK and other NATO members can no longer expect US exceptionalism to save the day and tackle the issues. With China capitalising on US retreat, we must seriously consider whether our future foreign policy should mirror the policy of managed decline pursued by Washington, or instead take the mantle as an outward active power with means and ability to defend the values of freedom and democracy. This is a choice for our leaders, here and across the world.
The UK cannot replace the US as hegemon, but it can be the architect of an entente cordial with global partners to fill the void left by Biden and ensure events which unfolded in Afghanistan this week never happen again.