Come one, come all: US broadens foreign policy partnerships

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian Special Representative on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov (second left) speaks to the media as diplomats from the U.S., China, and Pakistan look on, in Moscow on March 18, 2021. They had attended talks aimed at securing a cease-fire and peace deal in Afghanistan before the last U.S. troops withdraw from the country.
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When the United States invaded Afghanistan two decades ago, to overthrow the Taliban government, it did so on its own. But in today’s world, Washington can do much less on its own. And as the Biden administration negotiates a cease-fire and the departure of its last troops, it is seeking to involve an array of other players.

Call it the “diplomacy of strange bedfellows.” Washington is pulling in not only NATO allies but India, Pakistan, and Iran – Afghanistan’s neighbors – along with Turkey, China, and Russia. They all stand to gain from a peaceful transition to a power-sharing government in Kabul.

Why We Wrote This

The Biden administration is looking in some unlikely quarters for help in achieving its international goals, hoping to convince even traditional rivals to seek common interests.

It’s an approach President Joe Biden is likely to adopt in other global flashpoints. In Syria, for example, ending the civil war will need input from Turkey, Iran, and Russia, the main players on that stage. And on the Iran nuclear issue, signatories to the 2015 deal included Russia and China.

The “strange bedfellows” policy is based on the idea that there are some international challenges on which cooperation even with rivals is possible. It is an approach that will likely prove especially relevant when it comes to curbing climate change.

It’s an audacious idea that might be dubbed the “diplomacy of strange bedfellows.” And there is no guarantee it will work.  But the Biden administration’s novel blueprint for ending the war in Afghanistan might provide a template for conflict resolution elsewhere too.

In a world where the United States can do less on its own than it once could, Washington is looking beyond its traditional allies and seeking to enlist some unlikely partners to help advance its foreign policy goals.

Much has changed in the world since U.S. troops overthrew the Taliban regime in Kabul 20 years ago. The United Nations is now weaker. China is enormously stronger and more assertive, rivaling the U.S. for influence. The rise of populist nationalism has turned many countries inward.

Why We Wrote This

The Biden administration is looking in some unlikely quarters for help in achieving its international goals, hoping to convince even traditional rivals to seek common interests.

America itself embarked on a nationalistic retreat from international alliances and institutions under Donald Trump – a retreat President Joe Biden has vowed to reverse under the banner of “bringing America back.”

His Afghan initiative, though, is a sign of how different America’s global role is likely to be from the one it played two decades ago – probably less go it alone and more carefully calibrated. And Washington is almost certain to steer clear of other major military engagements unless faced with a clear national security challenge.

Former President Trump set May 1 as the deadline for a full withdrawal of the 2,500 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan. But a resurgence of violence has positioned the Taliban to reclaim power once the Americans leave.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is trying to negotiate a cease-fire, alongside a detailed power-sharing arrangement between the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban, creating the conditions for the American troop withdrawal.

The key diplomatic departure, however, is this: The U.S. is seeking to involve an array of other players in the talks – not just NATO allies, but Afghanistan’s neighbors Pakistan, India, and Iran. Also Turkey, a NATO member that’s been at odds with Washington. Plus China, and even Russia, where a new round of talks on Afghan power-sharing got underway today.

Each of these countries has interests different from, or even opposed to, those of the Americans. None would shed tears over an inglorious U.S. retreat from Afghanistan.

But they don’t necessarily welcome the prospect of all-out civil war after a May 1 pullout. Each would stand to gain influence, and a sense of co-ownership, by taking part in the peace process envisaged by the Biden administration.

That, at least, is Washington’s hope, if tinged with the recognition that success is by no means certain.

And there are signs that a similar emphasis on team diplomacy, rather than the simple exercise of unilateral U.S. power, is guiding President Biden’s approach to other challenges.

The “strange bedfellows” approach may prove difficult to apply elsewhere. In Syria, for example, it’s true that a resolution of the brutal, decadelong war will require key regional players such as Turkey, Iran, and Russia. Yet the U.S., having decided against any major involvement in the conflict, lacks leverage in devising a diplomatic solution itself. 

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File
Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov (left) speaks to top Taliban leaders in May 2019. The U.S. is hoping for Russian assistance in securing a peace deal in Afghanistan that will lead to a power-sharing government with Taliban members once the last U.S. troops have withdrawn in May.

When it comes to curbing Iran’s nuclear program, Mr. Biden has already inherited a mixed bag of partners in the 2015 deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, which was signed by Russia and China, along with Washington’s European allies. But Iran has made it clear that its price for accepting new constraints on its nuclear activity is one that only Washington can pay: an end to U.S. economic sanctions.

The new administration’s focus on collective action, however, is emerging as key to Mr. Biden’s main overall foreign policy goal, which is to act as a counterweight to the rising influence of China and rebuff Beijing’s argument that autocracy offers the world a more secure and prosperous political model than democracy.

Mr. Blinken made this explicit in an opinion piece this week, co-written with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, ahead of their first overseas diplomatic mission since taking office. It’s a visit to Japan and South Korea to make common cause to ensure that the Indo-Pacific region – China’s neighborhood – is “free and open, anchored by respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”

In Mr. Blinken’s words, such partnerships are necessary “force multipliers” of U.S. influence and, in the wider contest between autocracy and democracy, key to demonstrating that democracies “can deliver – for our people and for each other.”

And beyond its specific impact in Afghanistan or elsewhere, the “strange bedfellows” approach may prove equally important to another aspect of the Biden foreign policy vision – the idea that there are some challenges on which cooperation remains possible, and worth pursuing, even with rival states.

Nowhere is that more important than the issue on which concerted international action is essential, global warming. As the world prepares for a major summit on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland, later this year, Afghanistan could serve as a proving ground for a strategy Mr. Biden plans to adopt in the face of very different challenges.

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